On the bus ride over, I learned that Asher was 26 – four years younger than me. (That was how much he’d been forcing – no, coaxing – me to talk about myself at the café, that I hadn’t learned even his age till then.) He was an only child, and hadn’t moved out from his parents’ until just last year, but not for lack of encouragement. He was close with his parents, not just of necessity, and they’d always pushed him to be independent. But it had taken him a bit longer to finish college, and after that, it had still taken him a few more years to feel ready to leave home. Once he did, his parents had helped him find an apartment – one closer to his job, and reasonably accessible – and had helped him negotiate renovations with the landlord that would help bring it to fully accessible.
He worked as a web developer for a large company. I didn’t understand entirely what that that entailed, which hardly offended Asher; he admitted that he was in it largely for the job security. “I’m not ashamed to admit that good medical insurance is slightly more important to me than being passionate about my job right now. It would be nice to find something I’m more excited about in the future, but for now I’m happy to work with nice people, at a steady job.”
I nodded slowly. I was savoring the process of building out a picture of Asher’s daily life, his family, how he thought about things. It was already clear that he was more of a thinker than me, or more of an intellectual, I guess the word would be. (After all, I spent most of my time thinking to myself, even if I hadn’t bothered finishing college.) He read a lot, for example, which I didn’t have that much patience for, and especially about art, which had always intimidated me. But it struck me that even when he went somewhere in conversation I couldn’t quite follow, I liked the nimbleness and excitement with which he thought and spoke, the way he could sort of dance back and forth across a topic, come at it from different angles. I could almost see his thoughts moving over his face like a flickering light.
“Hey, one thing,” Asher was saying then, with a slight change of tone. I brought my attention back to center, looked at him questioningly. “Kind of a change of topic. I get the sense that it’s not your thing to ask about personal details, but I think it would make me feel more comfortable if I could tell you a bit about my disability. So you know what you’re getting into, I guess. Is that okay with you?” It all came out in a rush, and he licked his lips nervously, the first time I had seen him do that.
I nodded, widening my eyes to show my seriousness.
“Do you know what my disability is? Just checking.”
I shook my head. I hadn’t been sure if there was something wrong with his bones, or his muscles, or maybe both.
He spoke very softly, so that his voice almost blended with the muffled roar of the bus engine, but more slowly this time. “Okay, I have something called cerebral palsy – CP for short. It happened when I was a baby, because I got stuck coming out for like 20 minutes, which meant I was deprived of oxygen. That hurt the part of my brain that controls my muscles. There are a bunch of different effects that can have, but I have the kind of CP that makes your muscles really tight. Sometimes they go into spasm. So if you see me start to shake, that’s what’s going on. It’s not serious, but it can be really uncomfortable.”
He was searching my face the whole time he was telling me this, anxiously watching. Without being able to help himself, he was waiting for rejection again.
“Thank you for telling me,” I said. Fixed in my brain was the image of a tiny blue infant, with wisps of dark hair, gasping for breath. I cleared my head, looked at the Asher in front of me now, with tousled hair and lips slightly parted in anxious expectation. I reached out to his nearest hand, which was the right one, the small one. I held his fingers gently, barely applying pressure, just making enough contact to feel his warmth, the softness of his skin. “Just – let me know whenever there’s something I can do to help you out. Or if there’s sss - ssomething else I should know. Okay?”
The delicate fingertips pressed against mine. “Okay,” he said, smiling just a little bit shakily.
On the way out, there was some trouble with the bus’ wheelchair lift not extending properly for a few minutes. Asher had to roll back into the bus while the driver, a wiry man in his fifties with a round ‘fro, made exasperated noises and jimmied the controls. I was unexpectedly impressed, and grateful, when the other passengers on the bus restrained themselves from staring or making a show of impatience. Though there were a few curious glances, mostly they busied themselves with their phones or newspapers, or stared out the windows at the street, lined with neat, modern, red-brick apartment complexes on one side and small, slightly run-down Victorian houses on the other. I did my best not to loom impatiently over the driver, focused on examining the lift mechanism instead. Luckily the failure wasn’t mechanical, it was just on the control end.
Finally the driver could let Asher down, accompanied by many apologies. “Never happened on my watch before, sorry again – you have a nice night now.”
“No worries, sorry for holding up the bus,” Asher replied, overly generously I thought. We headed out into the twilight.
He had a ground-floor apartment in one of the modern complexes. The front entrance led straight in, no steps up or down, something Asher had mentioned to me when describing his apartment search with his parents earlier. We came in through the kitchen, which opened directly onto the living room; Asher flipped on the lights.
Standing just inside the doorway with my hands in my coat pockets, I looked around rapidly. The apartment was sparse, open, and mostly white, with laminate floors, no carpeting. All of the furniture was low, even the kitchen counters. The upper shelves of the rare taller pieces were occupied with a few decorative objects – nothing functional. Books, kitchen supplies, all of that was available at what was waist height on me. The kitchen table was round and had only three chairs pulled up to it; the matching fourth stood in a corner of the living room, next to – I noted with approval – a couple of large potted trees, a weeping fig and a frondy Norfolk Island pine. On the walls there were framed prints of abstract paintings, or things that looked abstract to me, in colors that I thought of as dark-bright.
“So that’s the kitchen and living room, obviously,” Asher was saying, “apart from that there’s just the bathroom and bedroom, over to the left. The floorplan worked out really well, didn’t have to have doorframes widened or such. We did have to have some white carpeting ripped out because I wasn’t keen on having my ‘shoes’ –” he pointed down at his wheels “– leave tracks everywhere, and neither was the landlord.”
I nodded slowly, still glancing around with interest, piecing together how Asher used the space. All of the furniture, for example, was spaced enough that his wheelchair could navigate around it – the coffee table wasn’t pulled right up to the couch the way most people would have it.
Asher continued, “Tune in next week for another riveting episode of Cripple Life Logistics. For now – you can leave your coat and stuff on this coatrack. Shoes can be on or off, I don’t mind either way.” He was carefully pulling the glove off of his small hand as he spoke, and then unwound his scarf. I was standing just behind him, so it gave me a good look at his long neck, with dark curls clustering just above it. Without thinking about it, I used one hand to start opening my coat, and ran the other along the back of his neck.
He hissed. Alarmed, I instantly drew my hand back.
“Oh, no, it’s okay,” he said hurriedly. “It’s just that my back and neck are kind of messed up today. That felt – alarmingly good.”
I couldn’t resist. Being around him made me crazy. His smooth, translucent, golden-pale skin, his smile, the way his dark eyes lit up when he was curious or excited. I had been aching with desire for most of the weekend, even just thinking about him on Saturday. I moved both hands to the back of his neck, ran them up and down the sides – he moaned and hunched forward in his chair – then slowly dug in, started gently massaging his neck, the muscles at the tops of his shoulders, and then down to what I could reach of his shoulderblades. He was so small under my hands; it felt so easy to grip him, knead against the fine bones. Even through his coat and sweater, I could feel that he had almost no fat, just taut muscle and bone.
He was starting to completely collapse over his knees, sighing. His left arm hung over the front of his seat. I tried not to put any of my actual weight onto him, not wanting to press on his drawn-up right arm, trapped between his chest and knees; I didn’t know if he could move it enough to get it to one side. That and the fact that he was still in his chair meant I couldn’t really get at his lower back.
Still, listening to him sigh, and moan, the warmth of his back, all of it was killing me.
Finally – really it was probably only a minute later, but a long minute – I had the presence of mind to stop, place my hands squarely against his shoulderblades for one last press, then gently draw him back up to a sitting position.
He tipped his face up to me, but his eyes were still closed. His lashes trembled as he said, “That – was amazing.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Despite his apparent contentment, I was suddenly regretful, nervous that I’d gone too far, too fast.
His eyes stayed closed for another few seconds, while he slowly tipped his head from side to side, testing his neck’s mobility. I used the time to adjust my jeans. When he opened his eyes again, I was still guiltily shifting my stance, and prayed that he didn’t notice. All he said was, “What did I do to deserve you?”
We had made and finished dinner – pasta with chicken and vegetables – before I felt comfortable asking, “Asher, did you make a police rrrrr - report y-yet?” I’d waited for a lull in the conversation; we were sitting face to face across the table from each other, and the general mood had been a kind of lazy contentment, the conversation pleasantly slow, mostly him talking and me listening, the way I preferred it.
Asher’s face went blank, and his gaze immediately dropped. He moved his hand slowly from the tabletop to his lap. “I didn’t,” he admitted. I had guessed as much from the conspicuous absence of any mention of it – mainly, no warning that I should expect to be called in as a witness.
I reached out and took his hand under the table, but he didn’t look at me. I could feel one of his legs starting to tense and bounce.
When he still hadn’t said anything, I said, “Look, I don’t love authority –“ he smirked automatically, and I rolled my eyes, realizing what that sounded like coming from a guy who looked and acted like me “– but those people did a terrible thing. You nnn - need to hold them accountable.”
Still he didn’t meet my eyes. The fingers of his right hand were starting to twitch now, and I realized that I could actually see sweat coming out on his brow. I pressed the hand that I held gently. “Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he said, finally. “Thank you.” He slid his hand away from mine, and leaned back in his chair, pressing his hand against the side of his face now. “I know it’s really irresponsible, but I just – I really don’t like thinking about that night.”
With my eyes, I invited him to keep talking. The fingers of his right hand flickered in and out.
“It’s been pretty bad. I have nightmares about it all night. It feels like – something toxic, that I wish I could just put away and wall off from the rest of me.” He paused. “And the other part is that I’m afraid to tell my parents. I feel like it’ll kill them, to know that this happened to me. If I already can’t deal with it myself, I feel like… I can’t deal with knowing that other people, really the most important people in the world to me, are worrying about it, losing sleep over it too.”
And, I guessed, it felt like a failure of his attempt to live independently. But we could talk about that later. I sat back, thinking through what I’d learned about his relationship with his parents. I couldn’t make recommendations based on what I would have done in the same situation.
“A few thoughts,” I said finally. “One, you don’t have to do it alone. I can help you wr - write the rrrrr – report.” I mimed myself scribbling frantically first, then pointed to him, and mimed him looking on with schoolteacherish disapproval, shaking a finger and making cross-outs. He smiled in spite of himself. “Two, the l - longer you take to tell your parents, the worse it will feel. Choose a moment that feels rrr-right to you, but decide you’re going to do it. And if you involve them earlier, they can help you, too.
“You don’t have to do it alone,” I repeated, for emphasis.
He was running his hand through his hair now. He looked less pale, though still uncomfortable, and his right arm and hand were spasming outright now, jerking back and forth across his chest. “I guess the confusing thing is… I wish I could do it alone. But I’m scared to.”
“I get it,” I said.
He looked at me full on. “Okay. Thank you. We’ll do it – together – in the morning.”