I was flat on my back in the alleyway. Cold, damp asphalt pressed into my back; darkness muffled my vision past a few feet away. I felt thick, cold, sick. Somewhere nearby I could hear voices: hard, mocking, incomprehensible. The sounds came in snatches, sudden harsh syllables jabbing into my hearing. Sometimes they floated nearer, as if the men were coming back, and my heart pounded; then they faded off again.
With my good arm I reached for something to help me, feeling around for anything, but all my hand encountered was empty air, and the chill, pebbly asphalt. I couldn’t push myself up, I felt so cold and weak, as if pressed into submission by the darkness.
Suddenly the voices blared close and loud, as if the men were standing over me in a circle and shouting into my face. But I could see nothing but darkness. They were shouting and shouting, broken, nonsensical syllables.
The confusion was so total that I woke up, panting with fear.
I blinked up at the ceiling and ran my hand over the comforter over and over, working to convince myself that I was here, not there. Under the covers, my legs were kicking frantically, my bad arm was snapping in and out, and my wrist felt excruciatingly tight, the pain bright and urgent. In a way, the pain was nice: it proved that I wasn’t in the dream.
As my head slowly cleared, I registered with a sinking sense of regret that Roy wasn’t there; he hadn’t been able to stay over for several nights. I craved his touch, the sound of his breath, so badly that my heart seemed to ache.
Having him there was the main reason I had said no, not yet when my parents had asked me if I wanted to see a therapist, after I had told them about the nightmares, after I had told them about the men in the alleyway. But of course, he couldn’t always be there.
I had to breathe, slowly, for what felt like hours before I could fall asleep again.
The next day at work, Francis asked me if I was coming down with something, and I almost said yes, because I felt that miserable.
The third time Amy was mean to Roy, I had to call her out on it. Conveniently, about fifteen minutes later, Roy excused himself from the table to take a client’s phonecall. As soon as he was out of earshot, I leaned toward her, and put my hand on her upper arm. “Amy.” We were at a downtown restaurant; she appeared to be distracted by a large party of sorority girls exiting noisily into the night; when the door finally closed behind their clattering heels and stream of bright chatter, we could feel a ghost of the cold air they’d let in.
“Amy!” This time she swung around to look at me, with an expression of mild amusement. The warm lighting filtering down from the shaded pendulum lights overhead was a color that I thought of as particularly “Amy:” a coppery-gold that made her curly hair and pale eyes glow, like a foxy Renaissance angel.
“Amy, I feel like you’re being… snippy to Roy.”
For a moment she looked blank, and then a slightly wary look came into her eyes. “What makes you say that?” she said, with careful neutrality.
“It’s – I’m sorry to badger you.” I was already doubting myself, but pressed ahead; I didn’t know how soon Roy’s call would end. “It’s – something about the way you keep saying ‘oh?’ back at him, no matter what he says.” I replicated the subtly challenging, contemptuous tone I’d heard, and the slight lift of her left eyebrow that went with it. Afterwards I had to stop myself from smiling nervously, undercutting what I was trying to say.
Amy looked aside a few moments, before lifting one hand to prop her chin on it; with the other she started slowly stroking the plastic cuffs of her forearm crutches, propped on her side of the table. “Don’t apologize,” she said a little absently. She returned her gaze to me, looking serious, almost severe. “I honestly don’t remember doing that, but you’re right that I probably did. Sorry. Mea culpa.”
Internally I relaxed a little. I started rubbing my hand over my right hip; both had been uncomfortably tight since the nightmare, which always made me a bit paranoid of having to have hip surgery done again. Worries on worries.
I was so used to Amy that when getting ready to introduce Roy to her, I had forgotten – maybe conveniently – that her high spirits could also come out as prickliness, which I was sometimes exasperated by, and sometimes actually admired; between the two of us, I was definitely the pushover.
I could tell she was also looking around now to make sure Roy wasn’t coming back imminently; at about the same moment, we both located him outside, a few windows down from where we were sitting. He was standing with his back to us, clearly still on the phone. Reflexively I admired the way the column of his neck looked when his head was bent down, the way that his hair came to a point at the nape of his neck, which I liked to kiss when I could.
Amy looked at me again. “I do like him, you know.” I almost let out an audible phew. “But, like… you know I have insanely high expectations for anybody who expects to be with you.” Unprompted, we exchanged identical, deliberately awkward grin-grimaces, stretching our lips away from our teeth, then laughed at the simultaneity.
“I appreciate it,” I said after we’d composed ourselves, “you know I do. But go easy on him. You know he’s super shy –”
“You don’t say,” she said with rich sarcasm.
“Come on!” I said indignantly. “You’re doing it again.” It had been painfully obvious that Roy had been intimidated by Amy as soon as the night had started, taken aback by her quick glances and remarks, which was why I had been set on edge by even the very subtle mockery that had seeped into her handling of him.
“Sorry, sorry –” She looked genuinely guilty, her cheeks flushing a bit. She started making a circular gesture with both of her hands. “It’s just, you know, I’m used to our back-and-forth, I have high expectations for this guy, and he’s sweet, it’s so clear that he’s crazy about you, but he’s like…”
“Not what you expected,” I finished bluntly; I was trying to steel myself, on Roy’s behalf. Again she looked guilty, and glanced out the window at his back. “We talked about this already, Amy.”
“I knowwww,” she said, swaying side to side in her seat. “It’s just - he’s such a jock, Asher! It’s bizarro!”
“I think you mean ‘super hot,’” I corrected her, primly. We were both enjoying letting humor loosen us up again, without losing honesty.
“Fine, yes, he is an excellent specimen of the masculine form.” She batted her eyelashes at me. “I admit – it’s not that I wasn’t listening when you told me he was huge and buff and huge, but… yeah. It’s like my mental picture frame couldn’t go that big. Does he like, carry you around your apartment and shit?”
I had to smirk. “Actually, yes. Buff boyfriend -” I stopped rubbing my hip to sketch a large “greater than” symbol in the air “- assistive technology.”
“God!” Amy flung her head back, rolling her eyes. “Where did I go wrong? Akshay won’t carry me.”
I burst out into incredulous laughter. “Is this a problem for you?” Inwardly I felt a twinge of happy relief that Akshay was still in the picture; it had felt like Amy’d been avoiding mentioning him for a while.
“Yeah, he says it’s demeaning to women -“
“Oh my god, what?”
“Well you know he’s all up in arms about resisting his super patriarchal upbringing – also he says I’m ‘too long’ -“
“Wait, what? Oh, crap, Roy is coming back in. Anyway, can you please work on being less, like, reverse-ableist now?”
“But jocks deseeeerve it, Asher –“
It was nothing we hadn’t joked about before, but – “This one is my jock.”
She reached out and touched my shoulder quickly, her eyes soft. “Yes, I’ll be good. Thanks for calling me out.”
Gratefully, I smiled back at her.
My brain was still working furiously as Roy strode back in and made his way back to our table. What we hadn’t had time to get to – the world doesn’t have infinite time for your neuroses, Asher, I reminded myself sardonically – was just how oddly put-together a puzzle Roy was, which I thought had to account for a good part of how edgy Amy had gotten with him.
The truth was that Amy and I both liked things to go fast, when it came to conversation; that we liked to talk a lot, and quickly, was a central pillar of our friendship. “I’m used to our back-and-forth,” she had said just now. Neither of us had ever directly acknowledged it to each other, because it felt unworthy, but we both knew that it took each of us a very deliberate mental switch, an almost physical resetting of expectations, to engage with disabled friends who were low-verbal or nonverbal. Slow down, chill out, wait and listen. With each other, there was a guilt-tinged relief in getting to go as damn fast as we pleased, while still enjoying the comfort of not having to explain any disability stuff.
Roy, on the other hand, was a weird inversion: able-bodied as hell, the picture of red-blooded American masculinity (minus the being-gay part), but also close to nonverbal, under the wrong circumstances. I had a pretty firm sense that that uneasy, paradigm-breaking combination was why Amy hadn’t been able to stop herself from needling him. And while Roy’s difficulties with his stammer made me feel incredibly tender towards him, it would have been a lie to say I didn’t, sometimes, feel impatient.
I had worried intensely and often about us being completely mismatched: why the hell would a guy like Roy want to date a guy who couldn’t run, hike, climb, or really do anything other than sit? But as time rolled on, I was starting to have the sense that all of these weird asymmetries created a kind of momentum in our relationship – the sense that we would be able to keep finding each other interesting for a very, very long time.
Roy pretty perfectly capped that frantic train of thought of mine by running his hand around the back of my neck as he walked around me and back to his seat. I smiled up at him, probably fatuously, and he smiled back. And out of the corner of my eye I saw Amy quirk half a smile, too.
The rest of the dinner went great, to my immense relief; I could even feel some of the tension ease out of my legs, so I felt like I was actually sitting in my wheelchair instead of balancing precariously. Amy’s veiled needling disappeared, replaced by the tenderly serious attitude she took on when she was really listening to someone, and Roy even relaxed enough to make her laugh with a quietly mischievous remark, which I knew would be a big step forward for him in her mind, compared to the tense, awkward, almost cringing Roy she’d seen at the beginning of the evening. When that happened, I gave her a challenging little smile: See? He is fun. And she gave me back a chastened grin.
Afterwards, we shared an accessible cab back to Amy’s and my apartment block, and it was fun, incredibly so. All riding along together in the dark, the streetlights sliding by outside, Roy holding my hand – the night took on a giddy, loose quality, especially when Roy cracked one of the windows to dilute the oppressive odor of pine car freshener, and chill air began streaming in. It felt like we laughed the whole way home.
On the sidewalk outside our apartments, Amy surprised Roy by lifting up her crutches to give him a big, long hug, squeezing him around his middle; I ducked my head and grinned at how big his eyes got. Then she crutched over to bend and give me a hug of similar duration, finishing it off with a peck on my cheek. “G’night, babe.”
“G’night, Amy. And thanks.” We exchanged a last smile before she waved and turned off towards her apartment.
Inside my kitchen, Roy shut the door behind us; while I was looking around, letting out a long breath, I heard him make a distinctly animal sound behind me, and then his bootsteps came at me swiftly, and his arms wrapped around me from behind. “Whoa! Hi!”
“Mmmm –” As I laughed helplessly, he kissed his way up and down my neck, nipped at my ears, slid his heavy hands up my chest and face to run fingers through my hair, then back down again to unbuckle my seatbelt.
“Oh, hi –” Now he was sliding his hands down my back, gently pressed his fingers against the backs of my hips and down to my ass.
“Ready?” he asked softly.
“Yes – I think –” I thought I knew what he was asking, and then he did shift to one side, slid one arm behind my shoulders and one under my knees, and picked me up smoothly and swiftly.
Now we were face-to-face, something I otherwise never got to experience when the other person was standing. I looked deeply into his eyes and smiled, my heart pounding with happy excitement. “Hi,” I said again.
“Hi,” he said this time. His smile made my stomach feel like jelly. I kissed him for a long time, feeling light and easy and safe in his steady arms.
When we broke, he cocked his head in the direction of the bedroom. “Shall we…?” I grinned and nodded, and he strode off.
“Amy’s jealous that you carry me around, ‘cause her man won’t,” I murmured teasingly in his ear. He snorted. “I got the best one…” I said in a sing-song, and kissed his neck slowly. He made another animal sound, flipped off the kitchen lights with his lower hand, and we passed into the bedroom in darkness.
Again I’m in the alleyway. This time I’m in a chair, not mine: a shitty metal chair, like in a movie interrogation scene, and they fan out around me like movie interrogators. I feel profoundly homeless, in alien territory. Again I can’t understand their voices. They gabble harsh, excited sentences that echo off of the brick walls enclosing us. Now there’s no alleyway, just a little box of brick with the dark figures circling me around; it’s not clear now whether they’re figures, or shadows on the walls.
I’m struggling to move, kicking my legs, struggling to straighten my contracted arm. I don’t know what I’ll achieve, but there’s a sense that rocking, knocking over the chair will break the spell, the dream.
After another interval of distorted time, the alien voices echoing in my ears, I realize what the issue is. They’ve tied down my good arm, my only arm, to the arm of the shitty metal chair. When I realize that, that I have nothing, that I’m nothing but a stream of panicked thoughts in a useless body, the fear is so profound that I want to sink down and die.
I wake up, and this time Roy is there. He holds me while I cry.