Holy shit, Mr. Rhodes is tall. Not just tall—huge. The guy’s a fucking giant. I’d be intimidated by him in the best of times, but now is not the best of times. I can’t conceive of how a tiny girl like Ariel came from the seed of such a big man.
I wish I didn’t have to be here. It’s only because I’ve fallen for Ari bigtime that I came here. I’d do anything for her.
“This must be David,” Mr. Rhodes says, although he’s not looking at me. He’s looking at Ari and doesn’t seem particularly pleased.
“That’s right.” Ari puts her hand on my shoulder, which I would ordinarily like, but right now it makes me practically jump out of my skin.
I hold out my hand for Mr. Rhodes to shake, although I have to wipe the sweat off on my pants first. He hesitates a beat, then reaches out to take my hand. Some people, when they shake my hand, they give me a tiny squeeze like they’re scared they might break me, but Richard Rhodes doesn’t hold back—he goes for the bone-crushing grip. But I can hold my own in a handshake.
“It’s nice to meet you, sir,” I tell him.
He doesn’t tell me to call him Rick.
“Oh, dear,” I hear Linda Rhodes murmuring. She’s looking down at the kitchen floor, and that’s when I realize that I’ve tracked dirt all over the floor with my wheels. Usually I’m on top of things like that, but with all the anxiety of meeting these people, I didn’t think of it. Also, my wheels are dirty as hell. Much worse than they get after my usual day in the city.
“I’m really sorry,” I say, cursing the fact that I’ve been here only two minutes and I’ve already fucked up.
And then it’s a whole production. Linda has to clean the floor and I go back to the welcome mat and do my best to get the wheels clean, all the while apologizing. Everyone else can just take off their shoes and the dirt situation is taken care of. I can’t jump out of my chair and crawl for the duration of the visit.
By the time my wheels are clean and Linda has mopped up, I’m ready to go home.
“Let me show you to your room, David,” Linda tells me. She has this smile on her face that’s so freaking phony. But it’s better than Mr. Rhodes’s hostile glare.
They made up the den for me, which is fine. I put my overnight bag on the unfolded piece of shit couch, already knowing my back will be sore tomorrow, but I can deal with it. It’s just one night.
Ari drops her own bag on the couch and sits down on it. “It’s lumpy,” she complains.
“Your bedroom is made up upstairs,” Mr. Rhodes tells her.
Ari frowns at him. “Daddy, I can stay with David. I’m thirty-one years old.”
I almost smack myself in the forehead. Why, when I’m trying to make good impression on this man, would she tell her father that we’re obviously fucking? Yes, we are obviously fucking. But this is her parents’ house. For Christ’s sake, we can sleep in separate bedrooms for one night.
Although it’s getting harder and harder to sleep apart from Ari.
“Ariel, that’s the way it is in my house,” Mr. Rhodes says in a low voice that’s nearly a growl.
“That’s so bullshit,” she shoots back. “You think David and I don’t sleep in the same bed at home?”
“This is fine,” I say quickly, before things can get too out of control. “Really.”
Ari looks between the two of us and finally said, “Fine.”
As much as it will kill me, I’ve got to tell Ari not to sneak into my bedroom during the night. If we get caught, her dad will skin me alive.
“I’ve got to go check on the food,” Linda tells us with that comically big smile. “Dinner should be ready in about twenty minutes.”
As if I could keep any food down right now.
The elder Rhodes leave the room and I’m left alone with Ari. She’s rifling through her bag and I take a minute to stare at her. Ari’s all curves and lots of red hair with freckles. Every time I look at her, I get a mental hard on. That’s what I call it when I see something that I know would make me hard if my brain were still connected to my dick. But that connection is gone. My dick literally has a mind of its own.
Of all the things that sucked after I broke my back, that was one of the hardest to swallow. You’d think not being able to walk anymore ever again would be the worst, and I’m not going to lie, that was very, very hard. But I’m still going to say losing control of my dick was the hardest. It made me feel like I wasn’t even a man anymore. And that’s how plenty of girls treat me—like I’m a fucking eunuch.
With the help of Viagra, I can get hard again with manual stimulation. It’s not a hundred percent, but I can do it, although I get a lot of anxiety when I’m with someone new about not being able to maintain it. When you’re in a relationship though, it’s not so bad. Ari knows how my body works now and that it’s not going to be perfect all the time. So we’ve got a vibrator that we use more than we even have intercourse. And more than that, I get off on eating her out. I love doing that. I don’t even get jealous that she’s coming so hard when I can’t.
Ari notices me staring at her and grins, “What?”
“You’re sexy, that’s what,” I say. But only after glancing at the door to make sure her parents aren’t in earshot.
“What else is new?” Ari giggles, settling into my lap. I love her there. Her body feels so good pressed against mine.
I brush her red hair aside and whisper in her ear, “Your dad hates me.”
“You’re imagining things.”
I raise my eyebrows at her.
“Okay,” she concedes. “He needs to warm up to you.”
Yeah, that’s an understatement. And we’ve still got a whole dinner and tomorrow morning for him to work on hating me more.
Linda is agonizing over the seating arrangement in the dining room. She’s got four plates set out and four chairs. She’s staring at one of the chairs, biting her lip. When I wheel myself into the room, she frowns at me, but doesn’t say anything. I decide to put her out of her misery. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “Can I help with anything?”
“No, it’s just…” Linda purses her lips. “Do you need to have a seat? Should I… pull it away?”
It’s actually not a stupid question. I always stay in my wheelchair to eat at restaurants, and I feel like there’s a chance I might need to make a quick getaway. But the Rhodes’s dining table is very high and the chairs are correspondingly high. So high that I’m going to be at least half a head lower than everyone else if I’m in my wheelchair and they’re in the regular seats. And Mr. Rhodes is so goddamn tall as is.
“Leave the chair,” I decide. “I’ll sit in it.”
I line my wheelchair up with the chair and do a quick transfer while Linda and Ari are fetching food from the kitchen. And now that I’m in the seat, I think to myself that I’m an idiot and I should have offered to help with the food. Oh well.
Without asking first, Linda pushes my wheelchair over to the corner of the room. And that is not okay. I hate not having my chair within arm’s reach. Yes, in the unlikely circumstance that everyone else in the house died of food poisoning during the meal and I had to get back in my chair, I could do it. It would involve lowering myself to the floor and dragging myself across the room, and that’s not much fun. But I don’t want to call attention to my situation by asking someone to bring it back for me.
Goddamn it. I shouldn’t have gotten out of the chair in the first place. You’d think I’d know better by now.
I try not to think about it. Ari will bring it over for me. It’s just hard to relax when my only means of mobility is all the way across the room.
Mr. Rhodes comes out at the last second. He blinks at me a few times, as if he’d hoped I’d decided to go home in the last half hour. No such luck for either of us, Rick. When it’s clear to him that I’m staying, he plops himself down into the seat right across from me.
We all take our food and I’m about to dig in, when I realize that the Rhodes have bowed their heads. I don’t know what the hell they’re doing until Ari furiously motions at me to do the same.
“David, would you like to say grace?” Linda asks me.
Say grace? How the hell do you say grace? Don’t get me wrong—I’ve heard of it. I know that this is something people do. But I can’t say I’ve ever been involved in the grace-saying process.
“David is Jewish,” Ari tells her parents to explain the baffled look on my face.
“Oh!” Linda’s face reddens. “Oh, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry, David. Is there a Jewish grace?”
Maybe. I’m not much of Jew either.
“The boy’s a heathen,” Mr. Rhodes mutters under his breath but loudly enough that we can all hear.
Shit. This isn’t going well.
“I can say grace,” I say. How hard can it be? I bow my head down with the rest of it, trying to remember what I’ve seen in movies. “Thank you God for this bounty before us. And… um, thank you for making the chickens that died to make this roast chicken. And thank you for making the potatoes and the people who dug up the potatoes. And the people who dug up the carrots. And also thank you for bringing me to Ariel, who brought me to the house for this bounty. And also, it’s a really nice house. So thank you, God, for making the house. And the people in the house. Um… Amen?”
Holy shit. That was the worst grace ever.
“Let’s eat,” Mr. Rhodes says.
I’m two bites into my mashed potatoes when Mr. Rhodes says, “David, you ever been hunting?”
Is he kidding me? Do I look like someone who’s ever been hunting? I shake my head no.
He points his fork on my direction. “You know how to fire a gun?”
This time Ari laughs out loud. Thanks, honey. “No, sir.”
“How does someone not know how to fire a gun in this day and age?” Mr. Rhodes snorts.
I don’t know what he’s talking about. In this day and age, when every meal I eat is purchased at a restaurant or grocery store, my building has a doorman, and the British aren’t all up in my face, why would I need to fire a gun? What good would it do me?
But I say none of that. Instead, I just shrug.
“What if someone were pointing a gun at you and it was either you or them?” he challenges me.
“Daddy, quit it,” Ari says.
“It’s a natural question to ask,” he says.
I’m not sure what to say. As much as I want to be a tough guy in front of the man who could very well be my future father-in-law, I think that bird’s flown the coop. “Nobody ever taught me,” I say.
Mr. Rhodes gives me a long, hard look. “Tomorrow morning,” he says. “Early in the morning, before anyone else is up, you and I are going hunting together.”
Shit, this was his plan all along, isn’t it? The asshole is planning to take me to a deserted area and hunt me. That’s surely what he’s going to do. This is all a grand scheme of his to hunt the most dangerous prey of all—humans. And of course, he’ll kill me immediately because I don’t know how to hunt or shoot or fend for myself in the wilderness and also I’m in a fucking wheelchair.
Or else he’s just going to make me feel like an idiot for not knowing how to shoot a gun. Either way.
“Eric was a good shot,” Mr. Rhodes comments.
Right. Eric. The guy who came before me. I still can’t figure that one out. The guy was rich and athletic and seemed to be crazy about Ari. But she dumped his ass, and it had nothing to do with me. She never explained it to me, but it worries me that if a guy like that wasn’t good enough for her, how am I supposed to be good enough? Just the thought of it makes me sick.
“Ariel tells us you’re a teacher,” Linda says, deftly changing the subject. “That’s so lovely!”
I smile at her. “I enjoy it.”
That’s an understatement. I freaking love my job. I know they say a lot of teachers get burned out, but that hasn’t happened to me. Okay, there are bad days and challenging students and frustrating bureaucracy and all that crap, but for the most part, I look forward to every single day of work. I’ve gotten best teacher awards five times in the eight years I’ve been doing this, so I’d like to think it shows.
“It doesn’t bother the kids that you’re…” Mr. Rhodes waves at me. “Handicapped? Is that what you like to be called?”
I let that comment slide. Of all the synonyms out there for being disabled, “handicapped” is my least favorite. But I don’t want to correct the guy. “I think it’s good for them to see that even with physical limitations, you can still work in any career you want.”
He snorts. “Well, not any career you want. You couldn’t be… a construction worker. Right?”
“Daddy, you’re being rude!” Ari snaps at him. Except he’s right. I can’t be a construction worker. “Anyway, David’s a really good teacher. The kids love him.”
Mr. Rhodes looks me up and down. “How do you reach the blackboard?”
“Actually,” I say, “there’s a female teacher who’s only a couple of inches taller than I am in my chair. And I’ve got a longer armspan. I got a stick with an eraser at the end of it so I can erase the top of the board if I need to.”
I got that device at the end of my second year teaching, after some kids wrote swear words at the top of the blackboard, rightfully predicting I’d have trouble erasing them. You always gotta be one step ahead of those kids.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Linda says. “I’m sure a lot of people in your situation would just lie in bed all day, collecting money from the government. But you’re out there every day, just like normal people! I don’t know how you do it.”
She smiles at me, really pleased with herself. Ari looks irritated, but I don’t care. She means well, at least.
We manage to get through the rest of the meal with minimal grilling from Ari’s dad. At least the food is good. I barely have room for the apple pie that Linda brings out at the end.
“That was delicious, Mom,” Ari tells her mother as she stands up from the table. She picks up a few dishes to help clear them.
“Yeah, that was a really great meal,” I say to Linda.
She beams at me. “I’m so happy you liked it.”
Ari and Linda disappear into the kitchen with dirty dishes and utensils. Mr. Rhodes gets up from his seat, but I’m still glued to mine. My wheelchair is still in the corner of the room, where Linda left it. I can’t move until someone brings it to me. I should have said something to Ari before she ran off.
I look at the kitchen door. Maybe she’ll come out soon. There are still plates on the table.
“You want to watch the game?” Mr. Rhodes asks me.
I don’t know why he can’t see my dilemma. He was intensely aware of my disability the whole night, yet now he thinks I can follow him to the living room without a problem, despite the fact that I’m obviously not in my wheelchair. Or maybe it’s only obvious to me.
“Um,” I say. Christ, this is awkward. I look at the kitchen door again—where the fuck did they go? “I need my wheelchair.”
At first he can’t figure out what I’m talking about. Then he sees my chair in the corner of the room. He frowns. “How the hell did it get over there in the first place?”
“Your, um, wife put it there.”
He rolls his eyes. He goes over to the chair and wheels it back over to me. When it comes close enough for me to grab it, I feel intensely relieved. My relationship with my chair has gone through a lot of stages since I got injured. When I first got hurt, I hated the damn thing and the way it limited me and set me apart. Now I think of it as practically part of me. I don’t like being out of it—ever. I know it sounds dumb, but I even sometimes wish I could sleep in it because what if I got burgled during the night?
Any olive branch Mr. Rhodes was trying to extend to me gets broken in half though. As soon as I’ve got my chair, he takes off in the direction of the living room without me. I could still join him, but I sense I probably shouldn’t.
Ari emerges from the kitchen—too late—to retrieve more dishes. She smiles at me. “Are you having a miserable time?”
I keep my mouth shut. I’ve learned the lesson about never badmouthing your girlfriend’s parents years ago, no matter how blatantly they seem to hate me.
To be continued...