Of course I ended up falling asleep right before the sunrise; so much for that romantic notion. Luckily, somewhere along the way I had ended up having the sense to tuck a pillow under my knees, so I didn’t completely hate myself in the morning. Still, my back and neck were killing me when I woke up, not to mention my wrist; it had to be from the stress of last night. It was also 11 AM, later than I could remember waking up in at least a year. Outside, the sun was shining weakly through an even, milky haze of cloud, which was about how I felt.
I swore to myself for a while before I even tried getting up, just feeling the deep, pulling pain as I shifted my back and arms minutely. Finally I got myself up onto my one elbow, levered up from there to a sitting position, groaning continuously. The only good thing that I could immediately see was the fact that I had gone to bed in nothing but boxers, which meant there was very little between me and a scalding-hot shower.
One literally painfully slow transfer later, I rolled into the bathroom. I felt scummy, disoriented. I set the shower tap to hot and let it run for a good few minutes before I began my transfer onto the shower seat. Then I let the water pound at me for a while, with my eyes closed. Slowly I started to massage my right hand and wrist; I gasped the first time that I gently flexed the hand back, felt the good-bad hurt of working against the tension in the contracted joint. I would never have anything resembling function in that arm, but regular stretching would at least prevent the contracture from progressing, which, in theory, meant that my arm would never have to feel any damn worse than it did right now.
Fifteen minutes later, I had toweled off and was back in my chair. I felt markedly better, but still defeated by the idea of trying to be any more functional. For a few minutes I squinted at the blue-white sky. Jagged impressions and sensations tumbled incoherently through my head. Then I went back to bed.
When I woke up again, it was 2pm, and I had been having a nightmare about the men in the alley. My heart pounded, and I could feel my sweat soaking into the sheets. I pushed back the comforter and lay there, staring at the ceiling. I’d still forgotten to turn off the overhead light. I wasn’t used to sleeping in the middle of the day, so I felt even more unhinged.
Grasping for a sense of orientation, I reached for my phone. My heart skipped again when I saw that there was an unread text. From Roy.
I had, to my amazement, completely forgotten about Roy. For a while, it seemed, there had been nothing but the four men and me in the alley.
I thumbed the message open. “Thanks for letting me know you got home safely,” was all it said.
I let the phone drop. I stared at the ceiling for a minute longer, refusing to feel anything. Then I levered myself up again. “I refuse to let my weekend feel any shittier,” I said out loud. My heart was still hammering, and my mouth was dry.
I transferred slowly, rolled out to the living area. I turned on music, whatever had already been queued in my playlist. I drank a whole glass of water, and then did my best to keep working out the tension in my back, stretching my arm overhead, doing twists, swearing some more, leaning forward to lie over my knees as much as I could without crunching up my right arm. When my back no longer felt entirely like a log of pain, I transitioned into doing the core conditioning exercises I tried to keep up with daily; working out my abs would ultimately help balance out the back tension, or so I told myself. The pain was ghastly, but a welcome distraction. My legs even did me the courtesy of not going into spasm.
By the end of it, my heart felt like it was running fast only in a good, exercised kind of way; I could feel renewed circulation tingling even through my legs and toes. Cleaning up, getting dressed, and making and eating lunch occupied another hour or so. After, I pulled an art book off the shelf and sat with it in my lap for another I-don’t-know-how-long, just paging through it, pausing where I wanted to look at something, and sometimes just because I was staring at nothing, trying not to think about the alleyway.
Eventually, though, I realized that I was actually looking at the pictures, reading more of the explanatory paragraphs, and actually finding them interesting. And that felt really nice.
Still. “I just wanted to have something to look forward to,” I said out loud, pathetically, as I rolled back to my bedroom, where my phone was still on the nightstand.
I turned on the screen, and there was an unread message from Roy. I was ashamed to feel one of my legs kick up and start spasming in response; it had been waiting for this, I thought spitefully.
The message read, “I would love to get coffee on Sunday. Where and when would be good?”
I let my head drop, and closed my eyes. When I looked up again, I could see a narrow slice of the sun sliding out from behind a screen of shredded clouds. “We did it!” I informed it.
“I’ll be honest,” Asher was saying, “I died a little bit on the inside when you didn’t text back for a while. Phones turn us all into teenage girls.”
“I was afraid it might feel that way,” I admitted. “Thhh – that’s why I checked.”
Asher gave me a brilliant smile in return. I felt undeserving. “I’m just… not used to the dating thing,” I continued. I wrapped my hands around my coffee mug and watched his face.
He’d picked a spacious café near the Ridge St. stop; it was late on Sunday afternoon. Asher looked tired, but the sunlight flooding in the windows made his skin glow, and put golden lights in his rich brown eyes. He’d ordered a tea, and was absent-mindedly leaning forward to hold his right hand, the small one, over the steam from it.
“You’re a lot braver than I am,” I added. It was a thought that had been on my mind a lot since Friday night.
His smile had widened even further. When it was clear I wasn’t going to say anything else, he said, “I hope this doesn’t make you self-conscious, but I think that might be the most things you’ve said to me in a row so far, and I’m feeling good about that. I feel like that’s a good start to a date – which I feel like I can say because you said ‘dating,’ so thanks for that also. – But I’m interested in this idea of ‘braver than me,’ considering that you’re the one who, you know, was ready to beat up four guys on a stranger’s behalf.”
“That’s different,” I said. “I wwww – would have done that aaa – aa – anyway.”
He looked confused, and I didn’t feel like I could explain without messing up more. I didn’t feel as nervous as I had expected to – seeing his face again had put me at ease in a way that I couldn’t explain to myself – but my stammer was still acting up for some reason. I felt like I was gagging on my words.
He must have understood my frustrated look, because he paused to make sure I wasn’t going to continue, and then said, “Do you mean something like – it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do anything else in that situation?”
“Yes,” I managed.
“Huh. That does seem to get at the classic question of whether bravery means not feeling fear, or feeling fear but choosing to act in spite of it. Or hackneyed question, whatever.”
I shrugged, raised my eyebrows.
“Well. If it makes you feel better, when it comes to stuff like asking you out – I just go with it, if it feels really right. So I guess that’s kind of like you rushing into a fight. But! I get terrified afterwards.” He took a sip of his tea. “I think, for me, talking is an easy way to… engage with the moment, if that makes sense. I guess it’s been my only reliable way of being like, ‘Hey, I have agency! Listen to me!’” He paused for another sip. “I hope – I hope if we keep seeing each other you’ll tell me, or show me, if it feels like I’m talking over you. Or not listening to you.”
I didn’t know what else to do but reach out and hold my hand over his, where it was still resting against his mug of tea. Unbelievably, he blushed. The café suddenly felt far too crowded, even though there were only a handful of other people around, scattered among mostly empty tables.
“Um,” he said. “I guess this is normally where I should ask you to tell me more about you, but I don’t know how you’re feeling about that.”
“I ccc – cuh. I’ll try,” I said, without moving my hand. “Um, I work for a landscaping business. Loading ssssss – stuff, unloading, building, planting. It mmm – mm – it means I listen to what people want done, what they’re excited about, and do it. And I get to work with plants a lot.”
“What’s your favorite plant?”
“Trees,” I said instantly. “Esss – ss – esp… particularly conifers. Cypresses are great. And redwoods, but I’ve never gotten to see a fully mature one.” The smile playing on his lips as he listened was enchanting. I felt as if I could see a forest growing behind his eyes, dense, green, inviting.
“Those grow out west, right? You haven’t gotten to go out there yet?”
“Ssss – Seattle once, but not California, where the national park is. My sssss – sis – sister lived in Seattle for a while.” I was relieved to have gotten the second “Seattle” out without a hitch.
“Big sister or little? Are you close?"
I paused for a while, marshalling my words, and trying to relax my jaw – always a losing battle it seemed – to keep the stuttering at bay. I had thought a lot about what I was going to say next, but never actually had a reason to tell anyone before. “Little. And, my fffff – f – family, I feel like we’re all different ssss – s – species. We r-respect each other, but we don’t get each other. I g-guess it’s good that we’re all independent, nothing to worry about. But with my sister, I sometimes wish I knew how to be c-closer. Visiting her in Sss – s – Seattle was one of the only things we’ve actually done together as adults.”
“What would it look like to you, to be closer with your sister? What ‘species’ is she?”
And so on, until I’d ended up talking more than I usually did in a month, and the sun was starting to set. I wasn’t even fully aware of what I was saying, after a while, except when my stammer really got stuck and I had to think about rephrasing, which happened less and less. I was just watching his smile, the lights in his eyes, and how much he, bafflingly, seemed to enjoy listening to me.
Until – “Hey,” he said, “would you like a change of scene?”
We had both finally finished our drinks, and from the light, the sun would have been right around the horizon. “Sure?” I said, unsure of what he was thinking. But it was true that walking would have felt nice at that point. I wondered what it was like to not be able to stand up, shake yourself out, get your blood moving. Asher had been stretching his back out a lot, with his one arm extended or bent overhead, and occasionally used his hand to shift his legs to one side or the other, which I guessed might help a little. I’d noticed, too, that his legs sometimes seemed to move by themselves, kicking up from the hip stiffly or trembling suddenly, but it didn’t seem like he could control them.
“I was just thinking,” Asher said, “it might be nice to be somewhere a bit more private. If that sounds nice to you, too, we could grab the bus over to my place, and I could cook you dinner. What do you think?”
“I would love that,” I said.