“Once upon a time,” Asher said, “on the – what is it? – the seventeenth day of the tenth month of the year, a young man found himself in the happy circumstance of having arranged for himself a date. Now, this young man, being a big ol’ queermo – “ I snorted, and his smile widened “ – had resorted to use of the magical rite known as Grindr to find himself said date. He had also, for the very first time, made himself a dating profile – magical, of course – that didn’t mention the fact that he was in a wheelchair, because he was sick of not getting any dates.
“It felt like giving up, but also like not that dumb of a move. Also, I did use one photo where you could see pretty much the whole situation, so.” I had been wondering about that, and pulled my mouth to one side. Asher sighed, with heat, and thrust his hand back through his hair before composing himself again.
“Lo,” he continued, with a desultory prophetic gesture, “came the night of the date. The other guy had seemed cute and smart and interestingly employed, and they had exchanged many a humorous missive via the mystical Grindr. Our young man was way excited, got himself dressed up real nice, but not nice enough to look like he was trying too hard, and headed out early for the tavern they had agreed upon for their amorous encounter. This meant he had many, many a minute to find a seat that would sort of but not totally hide the wheelchair, and to freak out over how this guy was going to react when he saw it, the arm, etc.”
Asher paused here. Somewhere along the way he had stopped meeting my eyes. I gave him a little while, before deciding that he might appreciate a push. “So?”
He sighed. “The other guy got there exactly when the date was supposed to begin, which I thought was a good sign. Not so good when he got close enough to see the wheelchair. I’ve gotten it before, obviously, but I still hope I forget what his face looked like. It’s just –“ He paused again. “We got like two minutes in past ‘hey, it’s great to meet you in person, how are you doing tonight’ before he said, ‘Look, sorry, this isn’t going to work’ and basically left right then. I think he was staring at my hand the whole time, too.
“I don’t know if he never even really looked at the one photo, or if he did and told himself that he could deal with it when he came to it, and then couldn’t…” Asher looked lost.
My gut was churning with a mixture of anger, disgust, and, unexpectedly, fear – the fear that I guessed Asher had felt all that time, waiting in the bar, and the fear that I felt myself, still, anytime I was expected to really talk with anyone I didn’t know. “That makes me sick,” I said, simply, to Asher. “I’m rrrrrr – really sssss – sss – sorry.”
“Thanks,” he said, looking up at me. He didn’t seem to notice how long it took me to get through three words. His face was serious.
A single pedestrian walked by swiftly on the other side of the street, the first one we’d seen in a while, a woman huddled into a long coat. Asher watched her as he continued. “So I sat there and felt shitty about myself, shitty about him, hoped no one had noticed but was pretty sure that at least a couple people had because I could see so much pity in their faces. God. I went back and forth for a while about whether I should just get the hell out and never show my face there again, but ended up staying. I pretty much never drink because I already don’t feel like I’m in control of my body, but of course I had one drink just to make a point to myself and the world. I made it last for like four hours, and the waitress was really nice to me about it. I had a crossword with me, at least, so for a while I did that. Then it was later than I’d ever been out by myself before, the place was about to close. I headed out and like one block later ran into the four shitheads you met.
“The insane thing is, I don’t even think they were that drunk, they were just really shitty, dumb people. Or like, one or two of them was super shitty, and the rest were dumb enough to go along with it. The plan, apparently, was to steal my wheelchair for just a little bit, do a joyride up and down Charleton, then plop me back in, pat me on the ass, and send me on my way. I’m still not sure whether that’s better or worse than just straight-up deciding to mug a crippled guy.
“And thaaaat’s the story of my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Up to the part where you came in.” He smiled crookedly at me, then looked down. “I try really, really hard not to go in for self-pity, but god. What can you say to all of that?” He looked back up at me again. The look in his eyes was close to anguish.
All I could do was hold my hands out wide and shake my head. I hoped my face showed what I was feeling.
And then, on a wild impulse, I took a step closer to him, and reached out to cup one of my hands against the side of his face.
He closed his eyes, and leaned into the pressure. I loved the warmth of his cheek. The tension around his eyes and mouth eased, until his face looked peaceful. He had long lashes.
I don’t know how much later, he said, “I think the bus is coming.” He opened his eyes again. I could hear it now, too, the deep surge of the engine. It came into view around the nearest curve of Fairway, sweeping its pale lights ahead of it.
I stepped back, let my hand drop. “Be safe,” I said.
“I’ll call you,” he said. The bus pulled to a stop alongside us.
It was almost 3:30 AM by the time I got home; normally I never stayed up past 11. (I had been proud of myself for agreeing to a pretty late-night date tonight; so much for that.) The combination of the night’s events and the near-silent busride had left me in a kind of drugged daze; I wondered if I would be able to fall asleep.
I pulled up my wheelchair facing the bathroom mirror as I pulled off gloves, scarf, coat. Phone went between my legs for temporary safekeeping. As I eased my bunched jacket sleeve off of my right arm, I caught myself looking myself over in the mirror, in the half-light that reached it from the hallway, trying to see with the eyes of the guy from Grindr – his name had been James. A nice, steady name, I had thought. James’ eyes reported not just that I had crippled legs and a crippled arm, which I, Asher, considered factual, but that they were distorted, unwholesome, repellent. My contracted arm was insectoid, mantis-like, or maybe like a plucked chicken wing.
My heart was racing again, and my stomach churned. With a twinge, my right arm contracted a bit, and the fingers of that hand fluttered in and out. I always wished I could control them better. (Forget about poker face; give me poker hands.)
Actually it was easier to be mad about James than to think about the four guys in the alley, which was, on some level, possibly why I was sitting and doing this. I sighed, broke eye contact with mirror-Asher, pseudo-James, and rolled all the way into the bathroom, where I splashed water on my face and neck and toweled it off.
In my bedroom, I plugged in my chair to charge overnight, and then transferred to my bed before undressing. Lying back against a couple pillows made it easier for me to get my jeans down over my hips and butt in order to begin the process of extracting my stiff, bent legs. Finally, I flung my clothes across the neighboring dresser. Then I eased myself up until I could pull the comforter back and toss it over my legs, which fell to one side. They would be sore in the morning, I knew, but I was feeling too off to be responsible and tuck a pillow under them. I used my good arm to push myself further down under the covers, gradually, and then reached out for my phone.
I flopped back against the pillows, unlocked my phone. Roy’s contact info was still the first window open; on the bus I hadn’t been able to do anything but sit and stare.
”Hi, Roy,” I whispered.
I let the phone drop to the side. I’d forgotten to turn off the wall switch as I came in, but there was no way I was doing anything about that now. So I stared up at the glaring ceiling light and thought about Roy.
How the hell did three such insane things happen in one night? Grindr date from hell, attempted-wheelchair-theft gang (“what the fuck,” I whispered to myself), capped off by rescue from mysterious silent stranger with some kind of vigilante complex, and also a convenient case of the gays. Roy was so weird and improbable, in fact, that part of my brain had been screaming at me during all of that time with him not to trust him, not to like him. But I liked him. A lot. I hoped it wasn’t just because he obviously had a thing for me, a thing so obvious that even someone with abjectly low self-esteem where romance was concerned could perceive it.
If I didn’t trust him entirely, it was because he was honestly a little scary. Not all the time, but when he wasn’t actively being scary, he was still pretty weird.
I turned my head on the pillow, thinking furiously. What did I really know about Roy?
So he had, or had had, a serious speech impediment. I couldn’t blame him if that had made him pretty weird. I often thought (guiltily, because I had friends with cerebral palsy who were nonverbal or close to it) that I was fucking glad that my CP hadn’t also affected my speech because if there’s one thing that can make people assume real fast that you’re retarded, it’s a serious speech impediment.
But it wasn’t just his near-silence, his long pauses and looks where other people would feel compelled to express themselves, or at least provide some harmless chatter. His silence had flavors. There was some kind of intensity rolling off of him at all times, a kind of heat, and I didn’t know how to parse it. That was scary.
And then there had been the fight in the alleyway. Not just the fact that he chose to fight, instead of calling the police, but the fact that he had been obviously restraining himself the whole time. I hadn’t noticed it at the time – I was too busy trying to breathe and not surrender to the wall of panic that wanted to press me flat, I had never felt so vulnerable before, never never never – but moments of the fight had suddenly returned to me with unnerving clarity as we headed down Charleton. The moment when his still silhouette at the mouth of the alleyway suddenly broke into a sprint, pounding down the alley toward us, the ease and brutal efficiency with which he landed blows on the fleeing men, the way that he hunched back into himself like an animal before he rushed to pin the last man, the instigator, against the alley wall. After that, they were behind me, I was falling out of my chair – but I heard some of the brief scuffle that ensued, the man’s whimpering breath, the dull slaps that I realized much later were Roy hitting him with his own wallet. The wallet that still rested in the inside pocket of my coat; I hadn’t wanted to touch it, look at it again.
I guess I should have been flattered that this stranger wanted that badly to fuck up the gang of four. But I was afraid that his anger was… impersonal, that this was a freak incident that happened to tap into a well of anger that went deep, was always there.
I wasn’t used to being close to anger, let alone that much of it.
It didn’t help that he was huge. I was bad at guessing heights, which was easy to blame on my vantage point, but he was definitely over six foot, and built like a locomotive. A locomotive with huge hands. I am, of necessity, a coward when it comes to anything physical, and – I didn’t know where I was going with this, Roy hadn’t offered me the slightest hint of violence. But he looked like he was designed to walk through brick walls.
I shook my head. Chewing everything over, overanalyzing as I liked to, was a better alternative to lying in bed paralyzed with fear, but it wasn’t helping me sleep. Did I even want to sleep? There was something comforting about the idea of being awake to see the sun come up. Thank god tomorrow was Saturday.
What else did I know about Roy? He was pretty bad at not showing his feelings. I pressed my face further into my pillow and smiled to myself. I wanted to think about the fun stuff now.
I had really liked the way he looked me over, the first time he really looked at me. At first it had been neutral, methodical, ready to assess the damage – not horrified, not full of pity. That neutrality alone had been enough to help me start calming down. Okay, his look said, what next? (See, said a voice in my brain now, not angry all the time.) And then, as he looked at me for longer, something warmer broke through. He had a square jaw, a mouth that he tended to hold tightly, eyes with tension lines at the corners, straightish middling brown hair cut short – traits that all went along with his quasi-military intensity. (Had he been in the military?) But somehow they went soft as he looked me that first time.
And I saw it happen again and again, during that hour or however long we spent together. If we weren’t really talking, or if we were talking about something that made him angry (like the story of my shitty night), the tension would gather up again in his brows and the set of his jaw. But if he really looked at me, it just… dissolved. He looked soft. There was no other way to put it.
It made me feel really good. So did the way he kept looking at me while trying to make it look like he wasn’t looking at me, and not in the way I always got from strangers. He just looked curious, and – like he was enjoying it. Like he wanted more.
Also, I liked his voice, what little I had heard of it. Deep, with a little bit of gravel to it, it seemed to emanate from behind his sternum. It felt like a presence instead of a voice.
I realized that the cheek I was lying against was the cheek he had held his hand against. His hand had been chilled, so it had sent an extra thrill through me. I thought about the largeness and firmness of that hand, its comfortingly rough texture, the simple shock of contact, of presence (that word again). I didn’t know if anyone had ever touched me that way before. I’d gotten as far as kissing a few guys before, thank god, a little bit of messing around, but it had all been really shy, kind of stilted. Nothing with that immediacy of emotion. The naked expression of tenderness.
I flung my arm over my eyes, overwhelmed. Then I reached out for my phone, flipped open Roy’s contact info again. I hit the “text” button, and propped the phone in the crook of my bad arm so I’d have something to type against.
“Hi,” I typed. “This is Asher. I got home safely, and I hope you did too. Thank you again for everything.” I hit send, and then typed, “Would you like to get coffee on Sunday?”
I hovered my thumb over send. Was Sunday too soon? Would it come off as desperate? Damn the torpedoes, I thought, deliriously. I hit send.
I hovered my thumb over send. Was Sunday too soon? Would it come off as desperate? Damn the torpedoes, I thought, deliriously. I hit send.