Jackson answered the door, and even with the light, he knew Dan wasn’t standing right there. No breathing, no subtle shifting, no cologne smell. Instead, he heard what sounded like a car trunk opening, a shift of something, a grunt.
“Dan? Do you have a lot of stuff?”
“See for yourself,” Dan replied, and a second later he let out a short laugh.
“So . . . is that a no, then?” Jackson said, chuckling.
A grunt, the shifting of items Jackson couldn’t identify, then the sound of a trunk slamming. “Yeah. Just have a few clothes and my photography equipment.”
Jackson stepped out of his way since he couldn’t be sure of what Dan was carrying exactly. From the sound of his walk, he had maybe a duffle bag that was making a kind of swishing sound as it moved, and something heavier that was thumping against something else, but that was his only guess. “I have your keys whenever you’re done settling in.”
Footsteps as Dan grew closer, the shift of something that made a kind of harsh sound--skin on cardboard, maybe? Perhaps Dan was carrying a box? And then a loud bang as he slammed the door closed. Maybe with his foot. “I’m just going to dump this stuff, and then I should probably go to the grocery store. Need anything?”
Actually, there were a few things Jackson had been meaning to pick up, but with the break-in, Lyn flying home early, and Dan, he’d nearly forgotten. “Yeah, actually.”
“OK, this shit’s heavy. Give me a couple minutes and we can go. Unless . . . do you need me to buy the stuff for you?” Dan’s voice shifted from that casual aloofness to the same uncertainty he’d had the day before when he’d asked if Jackson needed constant help.
“I’ll go with you. I’ll let Molly out real quick and get her harnessed and meet you in the kitchen.”
Jackson didn’t like riding in cars. Maybe it was a control thing, maybe it was the fact that even on small trips he got a little motion sick. It was one reason he loved living in Uptown New Orleans, where he could walk almost anywhere he wanted to go, and hop on the streetcar if he was going somewhere farther. He only took a bus or Uber--or hitched a ride with his sister or neighbor--when he absolutely had to. Molly, on the other hand, loved traveling by car. He could hear her panting happily in the back seat.
“Can I open the window for her? Or is that against the rules?” Again, Dan said something that could have come off as snarky and sarcastic, yet his relaxed way of speaking suggested it was an innocent question.
“You act like I’m Molly’s probation officer. Yeah, you can roll the window down.”
A moment later, the sound of the window sliding, then the rush of the breeze, even though they weren’t going very fast. A few seconds after, Jackson picked up the soft thud of Molly’s tail against the back seat as she wagged it.
Jackson couldn’t help smiling. “You’re a good girl.”
“You and Molly . . . how long . . .” Dan started to ask.
“How long have we been together?”
“You sound like you’re in a relationship.”
Jackson let out a short sound that could have been an aborted laugh. “Well, we are, in a way.” Jackson adjusted his glasses. “It’s been a little more than seven years. She’s my first seeing eye dog, and I honestly don’t know how I got along without her.”
There was a pause, then a faint laugh. “I nodded, sorry.” Then Dan took a breath. “So you were born blind?”
Jackson let the fingers of his right hand play along the door, feeling how different it was from Lyn’s car, or even Ms. Susan’s. “Technically, no, but practically, yes. I’ve never had normal vision.”
“Huh,” Dan said, a sound more than a word, a reaction rather than a reply.
No initial response other than the sound of the turn signal and then the shift of the car as they turned into the parking lot. Jackson could make out the huge shape he knew was the grocery store, even if it was just a big blob of red-brown. “Dammit. I shrugged. It’s just, especially as a photographer, I can’t even imagine that.”
Jackson smiled. “Well, I can’t imagine what it would be like to see the way you do, either, so . . .”
Dan navigated into a parking spot--even the way he drove had that lackadaisical flow to it. And that was even by New Orleans’ standards, where life moved more slowly than it did elsewhere. “Fair enough.” Dan shifted into park, the car making a much louder creak than Lyn’s did, and even though he hadn’t gotten a feel for more than the door, Jackson sensed the car was old and a little beaten up by the way it smelled and rode, though nothing like the behemoth that Ms. Susan drove. How she navigated that land yacht on New Orleans’ narrow streets amazed both Lyn and Jackson alike. “We’re here,” Dan announced. Then he hesitated. “Or do you know that?”
“Yes,” Jackson said, and resisted the urge to be snarky. Dan seemed like a nice guy who didn’t know what to expect from Jackson. Jackson slid his hand along the door until he found the latch and pushed it open. “I know the route, I can tell when a car is put in park, and I can see the building. Not well, but I’d have to be almost totally blind to miss it.” He flashed a smile to show he wasn’t irritated, then lifted his legs out of the car one by one before pulling himself to his feet.
He felt along the side of the car and eventually opened the back door, signaled to Molly to jump out, then bent until he found her harness. He shut the door and listened for Dan.
“Before you, I honestly didn’t know that you could be blind and still see. It sounds like an oxymoron.” Dan’s door shut with a loud thump, and with one hand on the roof of the car, Jackson could feel it shake with the violence of it. Dan was strong, and that made Jackson’s balls tingle and his dick stiffen. He loved strong men, men bigger than him. But his mind was getting far off track.
Jackson cleared his throat. “I can see color and shapes, if they’re big enough and close enough, but no details. Shall we?” Jackson turned around, orienting himself toward the store.
Jackson heard Dan work his way around from the other side of the car, closer to him. “Uh, so how does this work?”
Jackson didn’t have a good feel for how far it was from the car to the front door, so he trusted Molly to guide him. “Well, usually you pick out food, then you pay for it, then you go home.”
Dan didn’t immediately reply, and Jackson strained to pick out any little glimmer of info he could, but with all the ambient noise--the breeze, cars in the distance, the far squeak of a shopping cart, Molly’s panting, and more--he couldn’t pick out anything that told him whether or not Dan was pissed by Jackson’s smart-aleck answer. Finally, Dan said, “Dammit I wish eye rolls made a sound right now.” Then he laughed, and when he spoke again, he slipped back into that lackadaisical flow, his words slipping out like water over rocks in a gentle stream. “You and Molly.”
“I hold the harness and we each put one foot in front of the other. She makes sure I don’t run into anything or step into traffic. Not much to it.” That was vastly understating all the training that Molly had, or how long they’d worked together.
“Will I ever get a straight answer from you?”
“How can you? I’m gay.” Jackson felt a genuine, playful grin peel its way across his face, and then he quickly squelched it. That was a flirting kind of smile, and Dan was definitely not interested in him. Dan hardly knew what to do with him. Jackson cleared his throat. He could feel that they’d left the smooth pavement of the parking lot and moved onto the ribbed sloping ramp that lead to the space just outside the entrance. Carts would be off to his right and plants on his left. He paused, giving Molly the signal to stop.
“Just waiting for you to catch up.”
“So we can do this one of two ways--you can do your thing and I can do mine, or we can shop together.”
A hesitation from Dan--maybe some body language, or maybe he was trying to decide to ask Jackson a prying question about his capabilities. But finally, he said, “I’m fine sticking together, unless you don’t want to.”
Jackson had to hide his joy, even if this stupid puppy crush of his was ridiculous. “OK. Get a cart. Stay close enough to me I don’t lose you, but Molly will be my eyes. Though I’ll need your help identifying packages.”
“I shrugged. Again,” Dan said with an exasperated sigh.
“Jackson, Molly. How you two doing?” a familiar man’s voice immediately greeted them when they entered.
Jackson turned his face toward the sound, making out the blur of a medium-built person whose brown hair and skin blended with the color of the store’s uniform. “Antoine. You look good as always.” Jackson cracked a smile and held out a hand for a shake.
Antoine chuckled loudly. That joke never got old for him. He shook Jackson’s hand heartily. “Where’s your sister? Everything all right?”
“She’s fine. Still on her honeymoon.”
“Oh, that’s right. She deserves to be happy. I swore off marriage myself after wife number three. What you need today?” Antoine asked. He was one of the store employees who helped Jackson shop when he was on his own.
“Actually, Dan’s going to help me out today. Dan’s renting Lyn’s room. Dan, Antoine. Antoine, Dan.”
To Jackson’s left, Dan and Antoine exchanged greetings, including a few that implied Antoine thought “roommate” was a euphemism, to Jackson’s great amusement, and then Antoine said, “We just got a new flavor of Zapp’s. Make sure Dan helps you find them. The flavor’s called Lagniappe and I think you’ll love them.”
Normally when Jackson wasn’t with Lyn, he skipped the whole produce section almost entirely, but apparently Dan was all about fruits and vegetables. “Did an apple offend you once or something?” Dan asked after Jackson’s last huff of impatience.
“I don’t have anything against fruits and vegetables, but that’s not what I’m here for.”
Dan chuckled, apparently amused. “Do you eat gumbo?”
“Was that a question? I was thinking of making some tonight. Anything to put off unpacking, even if I don’t have much stuff. Come over here.”
Jackson thought of being contrary just on principle, but he decided to command Molly toward Dan anyway. “What?”
“Do you like okra?”
Loved it, actually. “Yes.”
“Good. Here.” Dan took Jackson’s free hand, totally surprising him, holding it for just a fraction of a second. But it was long enough to make an electric tingle shoot through Jackson’s body and for his breath to catch. Then Dan laid something green in the crook of Jackson’s palm. “This okra looks amazing. Don’t you think?”
Jackson commanded Molly to stay, then dropped her harness so he could use both hands to feel the vegetable, his fingers moving over the ridges that defined each of the five or so sides, feeling down to the point of the tip on one end and the stem at the other. It struck him how, as aloof and clueless about Jackson’s blindness as Dan could be, that he’d wanted to share this with him somehow. Not try to describe it in a way that Jackson could only vaguely understand, but actually let him “see” it in his own way. It unsettled Jackson a little because he wasn’t sure what to do with that. He put the okra to his nose and sniffed. It smelled as fresh as it felt. “Seems good to me.”
“Awesome,” Dan said with enthusiasm, and Jackson heard him grab a bag and start filling it with okra. “I’ll make chicken and okra gumbo tonight. A thank you for letting me rent the room even though I know it was your sister’s idea.”
“So now isn’t an appropriate time for me to suggest this was your oh-so-subtle way of coming on to me?” Jackson said, nudging the okra up to make it look like an erect penis.
“Classy. I’m sure the ten-year-old girl shopping with her grandma over there really appreciated that,” Dan said, plucking the okra from Jackson’s hand.
Jackson immediately turned his head, trying to make sense of his surroundings. Difficult in the brightly lit store. Everything blended together into piles of color he knew were vegetables and the occasional slightly differently colored blur he assumed from experience were people, but it was too difficult to really tell, especially with his depth perception problems, how close anyone was to him other than Dan.
“I’m just giving you a hard time. There’s no one around, and what you said could have been a lot worse.”
Jackson supposed that was true. He’d definitely been thinking something far more graphic.
Dan spent more time in the produce section than Jackson probably had in his last six shopping trips combined, but finally they moved on, going row by row as they worked on their lists. The first aisle was bread. Jackson actually didn’t like bread very much and didn’t eat it often, but he’d promised his sister he’d change up his routine, and sandwiches were easy for him to make, and portable. If he wanted to go to his office on campus during the break or to the park, he could, and eat his lunch there. It’d be good practice for when the spring semester started.
For Jackson, the bread aisle was a blur of browns with other colors--the labels--mixed in, but it was impossible for him to make much sense of it, and the store had a notorious habit of shuffling things around so he couldn’t always rely on memory to find what he wanted. Still, he commanded Molly to lead him toward the center right, counting steps to help give him a sense of distance. Then he had her stop and reached out to touch the loaves of bread. The kind he liked was a little different shaped loaf than average, but this brand had several varieties that were a struggle for him to tell apart. He plucked one off the shelf, feeling it with both hands, brushing his fingers over the label as if that would help him determine if it was the shade of green that meant he’d chosen right.
“What are you looking for?” Dan’s asked off to Jackson’s left, the side where Jackson had a gap in his vision.
Jackson turned his head a little more untill Dan’s shape was in view, then held out the bread. “Is this the one with the nuts in it?”
Dan didn’t say anything right away, then said, “You like to put nuts in your mouth?”
Jackson couldn’t help a grin. So Dan was apparently the rare straight man who could make jokes like this with him. Maybe they could become friends after all.
“And you criticized me for the okra. Is this the one I want or what?”
A pause. A sigh. “I’m starting to think you should assume every time I don’t respond right away it’s because I nodded or shrugged like a moron. Yeah, ‘Oatnut,’ that’s what you want, right?”
“Yeah. Thanks. Where’s the cart?” Jackson transferred the bread to his right hand and reached out with his left. The cart was somewhere in front of him, slightly to his left, but his fingers didn’t reach it until Dan pushed it a little closer. “Thanks.” Jackson felt along the cart to reassure himself he had the front part, where a baby would sit, and set the bread there. Then he reached into his shoulder bag that Lyn teased him good-naturedly about, felt around past his folded up cane until he met the plastic of his Braille labeler. He pulled it out, draped the strap over his neck, and double-checked the tape was ready with a quick pass of his fingers, then typed out his brief message, feeling the label as it came out to make sure he hadn’t made any typos, and finally used the cut button to release the label and stick it onto the loaf of bread.
Jackson labeled almost all his food packages, normally in shorthand because it made for faster labelling and faster reading later. For example, instead of writing out the five-letter word, he simply put “brj” which meant, to him, that it was his bread. (“Br” from bread, plus J for Jackson, in case Lyn, or in this case, Dan, had a different loaf.)
“What are you doing?” Dan asked as Jackson was fixing the same label in a couple different places on the package.
“You may have noticed I can’t read printed English,” Jackson said snarkily.
Dan sighed and Jackson could hear him moving nearby, probably selecting his own bread from the shelf. He didn’t say anything else until they moved into the next aisle--cookies and crackers--Dan confirmed when Jackson asked.
Jackson gravitated toward the blur of blue. “I’m looking for oreos,” he said, sliding his fingers over the packaging. He pulled one off, feeling it, not entirely convinced he had the right one. Is this right? Or is this the chocolate chip cookies?”
“Chocolate chip,” Dan answered. “Here’s the oreos.”
Dan tried to take the other package back, but Jackson resisted. “Eh, I’ll take them both.”
Dan made a sound like he was going to say something, but he didn’t. Just waited for Jackson to label each one--double-checking with Dan that he hadn’t mixed them up--before announcing he was ready to move on.
As they walked toward the next aisle together, Dan asked, “Why do you feel all the packages when you need me to tell you what’s what anyway?” Yet another time Dan had asked something that could have come off condescending or nasty but simply expressed his curiosity.
“It’s hard to explain,” Jackson said. “Is this the chip aisle?”
“Yes. Do you eat anything healthy?”
Jackson gravitated toward where he knew the Zapp’s were, instinctively feeling the packages as if he could determine only by touch which flavor was which. “Potatoes and corn are vegetables. And chocolate comes from a tree, so it’s a fruit.”
Dan let out an exasperated laugh. “I’m pretty sure it doesn’t count if the corn is turned into corn syrup and the potatoes are deep fried and covered in salt.” Jackson felt Dan come up behind him, their bodies nearly touching, Dan’s body heat melding into his own. Dan reached over him, there was a rustle of packaging, and then the chips were in Jackson’s hand. “You’ll kill yourself eating like this,” Dan said, almost a sultry whisper in Jackson’s ear. And Jackson knew he had to be dreaming. Dan was straight. If he wasn’t, someone would have said something to the contrary already. Yet Dan kept doing things like this that made Jackson want him even more.
Jackson forced himself to focus on making the label. No way he was going to spell lagniappe, so he wrote “chip” since he had several packages at home already, then added “NZF” for “new Zapp’s flavor.”
“Why are there only six buttons?” Dan asked. He was a curious one, and although it could be irritating, it was actually something Jackson liked about him. One reason Jackson didn’t make friends easily was because he was naturally intellectual, and he was terrible at small talk. Put him next to someone at a party where he could discuss history or politics or anything of substance and he could be good for hours, but sit him next to the guy who only wanted to talk about football and prime time TV and he was stuck.
“Braille letters are made up of cells that can have up to six dots. Three rows of two. Depending on where the dots are positioned tells me what letter or number I’m dealing with. So each button on the label maker is for one dot in one position. If I need to make a letter with several dots, I press multiple buttons at once. So for example, the ‘C’ is both these buttons at once since a ‘C’ is represented by two dots in the top row.” Jackson made a second label, cut it, and presented it for Dan to see.
“Wait, so if one letter is one little square then there’s no way that says ‘lagniappe.’”
“It doesn’t. Standard Braille uses a lot of contractions to shorten words so it’s easier to read faster and they don’t take up as much space. But I also have my own shorthand so with a couple letters I know what I’m dealing with. I don’t need to read War and Peace just to find the package of chips I want.”
Dan chuckled. “Makes sense.”
They continued shopping, Dan asking a few more questions about Braille, but then slipping into more getting-to-know-you topics, and Jackson found himself getting more and more comfortable with the man. The attraction was still fierce, and it seemed like Dan touched Jackson more than he needed to. Never in an inappropriate way, and Jackson certainly appreciated it, but it struck him as odd.
They’d just about finished their shopping, Dan apparently trying to calculate the cheapest laundry detergent he could find, when Jackson felt compelled to answer his earlier question.
“Touching things helps me understand what I’m seeing.”
Dan didn’t respond right away. “Huh?”
“Earlier, you asked why I felt I needed to pass my hand over the items on the shelves, even if everything was essentially the same shape and size.”
“Yeah?” Liquid sloshing, then the sound as something heavy was set into the cart. Apparently Dan had made up his mind.
“My world is a confusion of color and indistinct shapes.” Jackson hesitated, trying to figure out how to explain. “Like, earlier, when you handed me the okra. If you’d just showed it to me, all I could have told you was that it was green and general size. Because of context, I may have guessed it was a jalapeno or a green banana, or something like that. But even without your telling me what it was, once you put it in my hand and I can feel its shape, feel the details I can’t see, suddenly it’s not just a blur of color anymore. It’s something I can understand. Touching things connects me to the world around me.”
“That’s amazing,” Dan said, with genuine awe. “I’m such a visual person--obviously, if I’m a photographer--but I love that description. So what do I look like to you?”
Jackson frowned. “In this light? Not like much. A vague blur of peach and various shades of brown punctuated by the red of your shirt. The red really helps me see you, because you stand out against the background.”
Jackson tilted his head trying to make sense of the sounds he heard coming from Dan’s direction. It was almost like he was hopping up and down. “This is . . . I’d love to try to explore this in a photography project. Do you think you’d ever be interested in going on a shoot with me?”
So Dan was a cool guy who liked to touch Jackson--although presumably in a platonic way--and wanted to use him, the blind guy, to help him take pictures. Nope, this wasn’t a dream. He’d just accidentally taken way too many muscle relaxants this morning and was tripping. It didn’t change how Jackson’s heart had begun beating more rapidly in his chest, this crush on Dan in full force. “Uh, not sure how much help I’ll be, but OK.”