The next morning, when we’d finished filling out the online crime report form – Roy ended up having to take the lead, typing in half of my responses for me when I shamefully but not surprisingly wilted before the challenge of, for example, enumerating physical descriptions of the gang of four – I felt a sudden jolt of superstitious fear. Everything that had happened since I’d met Roy had been so improbably good that I had the sudden conviction that signing off on this would bring it all to a close, seal off the freak outgrowth of space-time that had allowed us to briefly coexist.
(The back of my mind also observed, helpfully, that it was likely that I was once again using this imagined crisis as a distraction from attempting to reckon with the men in the alleyway.)
As Roy and I kissed good-bye at the threshold of my front door, the question is this the last time formed itself clearly in my head, sent a chilly wave of unease through me; my back contracted uncomfortably, tilting me back and to the right. I felt as if I couldn’t look him in the eye, either. I think he noticed, too, because a look of puzzled concern crossed his face as he stood up. He said nothing, though. After he’d headed off down the sidewalk, with his rolling, ground-eating gait, I cursed myself bitterly for wasting the moment.
But it wasn’t the last time. Over the next couple of weeks, we met up two, three, four more times – sometimes in the city, sometimes at my place. Every time, I still didn’t quite believe that he was real, that he would show up – couldn’t believe it until I saw his shape filling up my doorway, the shy grin that slowly grew on his face as he saw me, too.
It wasn’t always easy to align our schedules since, on top of working days that often exceeded 10 hours, Roy often worked weekends, too. I learned that in addition to projects with the landscaping business he regularly contracted with, he took on home contracting projects of his own, especially as the winter came on. But it helped immensely that his energy seemed inexhaustible. One night he came over for dinner after working – he later admitted – from 6 AM to past 6 PM that day, yet still he seemed as keen and restless as ever. It also helped that he had a car, which meant that he at least was less dependent on bus schedules and the vagaries of accessible cabs.
Once or twice, I offered to go over to his place instead, but he reacted with a vague, uncomfortable demurral. I thought over his reaction several times, and couldn’t help taking it to mean both that his apartment wasn’t accessible, and that he was embarrassed that that was the case. But really it could have been a lot of things: was he a secret slob, for example? I had to catch myself before I tumbled too far down the dizzying path of “what would that mean if we lived together…”
On nights when we couldn’t see each other, we quickly fell into a habit of – to my great surprise – phonecalls. It didn’t surprise me that Roy wasn’t much into texting, used it for only the most perfunctory communication (emails likewise), but it did surprise me, all things considered, that he’d prefer calls over texts. Quietly I slotted it away with the assemblage of the other little preferences and quirks that continued to shape my impression of him as being strangely old-fashioned, courtly.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that being on the phone actually made his speech more fluent, at least with me. (I wondered if he found eye contact and all the other feedback of face-to-face speech overwhelming.) Not that phonecalls made him any more talkative, by any stretch of the imagination, and I wasn’t comfortable just monologuing at him, as much as he seemed to enjoy it, so we often shared little more than a “hey,” a quick exchange of impressions from our days – for him, often a bit of tricky engineering he was proud of having pulled off, or an amusing/exasperating client – and a closing “good night.”
But it felt warmer and more genuine than texting, I found; I often felt afterwards as if I had been hugged, and went to bed smiling to myself. I savored the phrases he’d passed onto me, the comfortable rumble that his voice sank to when he wasn’t bothering to project at all.
“You’re looking peppy lately,” my coworker Francis remarked to me, maybe ten days out from when I’d met Roy. A burly guy about my age, with a shaved head and a beard magnificent both in its density and redness, he sat across from me in our shared working space. “Lotsa smilin’, good viiiibe…” Francis wasn’t actually from California, but had gone to a UC for undergrad, and had never lost the attitude.
“Oh geez,” was all I could say at first, embarrassed. I leaned forward and rubbed my hand through my hair, partially shielding my face from him.
Francis raised his eyebrows – also impossibly red. “Got something really good going, huh? Embarrassing juice diet? Sick workout regime?”
I laughed and rolled my eyes. “You know me and the workouts. No, I…” I paused. “I’m seeing someone and it’s going well, actually.” Normally at work I was reserved about my private life, but I didn’t feel like I could come up with a convincing lie at the time; nor did I want to. It wasn’t hard for me to admit to myself that really, I wanted to tell everyone about Roy. Knowing that Francis was a talker, but not a gossip, helped.
Francis inclined his head, made a “respect, brother” kind of facial expression. “Congrats, dude. Glad to hear it. Keep killin’ it.” He didn’t ask for further detail; I bobbed my head and said thanks; he returned his attention to his work.
Given that we were a youngish software company, everyone tripped over themselves to be progressive, and I’d certainly dropped strategic hints about my sexual orientation on occasion, but I didn’t feel secure enough in either my level of out-ness or the duration of my relationship with Roy to start going into detail just then. Even though I trusted Francis, unlike a decent number of others at the company I knew, to be above immediately instigating long sessions of speculation about how exactly a gay dude with one working limb could do it with another dude. God! The thought made me nauseous.
That weekend, Amy and I had lunch together, at her place. When I rang her doorbell, she was so eager to see me that even from outside I could hear her stomping across the kitchen floor. The door opened; Amy’s face, haloed with her short, bouncy, coppery-bright curls, practically blazed with excitement; her pale green eyes looked electric. “Asher!” She leaned on one of her forearm crutches and let the other hang as she bent to give me a hug. “Hey, Legs,” I said happily into her shoulder.
Amy and I had met at a summer camp for teens with CP and other muscle disorders, when I was just about to go into senior year of high school, and she had just finished hers. Her family had just moved to the area, and had enrolled her in the camp to help her feel more at home, even though she’d be leaving for college in a few months. For my part, I’d been attending the camp since the beginning of high school, and had made a number of good friends there – most of whom I was still in touch with, even – but no one had clicked like Amy and I had. It was like fire meets fire, in a good way: we were both hyperanalytical chatterboxes, so we could bounce off of each other and make abstruse jokes for hours. We kept a notebook we called “The Laboratory,” detailing thought experiments we’d “run” together, convoluted alternative endings to favorite movies, national economies based on monetization of low-probability weather events, that kind of thing. Even in retrospect it still made me laugh more out of genuine amusement than out of embarrassment at how clever we thought we were.
Like me, Amy had spastic CP, but only her legs were affected, and though her knees and feet, too, were contracted, she was quite mobile and could stomp around beautifully with braces and crutches – hence my nickname of “Legs” for her. I had briefly been “Wheels,” not surprisingly, but somehow it didn’t stick. Part of it was that “Legs” suited Amy in more way than one – she was really quite gangly, would have been taller than me if I could stand up, which added to her general air of expansive, breathless, slightly madcap energy. Being around her made me feel as if I’d just had a shot of espresso.
“Asher,” she said pleadingly as she led the way inside, pausing to use one crutch to knock a stray pair of boots out of the path, “I’ve been so good.”
“You have been so good,” I said, laughing. “I think you sent me only like fifty more question marks yesterday.”
“I could have sent you fifty-one, or used up all of your data with huge GIFs of cats falling over or something. So, am I going to get to hear more about this guy today? What you’ve told me so far is like barely more than what Google told me, which is that… he has a 4.75-star rating on a home contracting site.”
“You Googled him?!” I was mortified.
“Come on, that’s just common sense nowadays – I’m serious,” she said, turning to glare at me when I laughed incredulously, “it’s an obvious safety measure.”
“Okay, okay.” I had Googled him myself, of course, but still felt chastened by the lengths to which Amy was going to look out for me.
Dinner was already on the table – Indian take-out, since Amy was far from domestic. We set to without any formality. “If you got out more, you’d be more savvy about this stuff,” she said reprovingly, peeling open a tinfoil packet of naan. “It’s embarrassing for you when you work in web services.”
“Yeah, well, this year was supposed to be my big coming-out, and we all know how that went.” I had told her about no-good James from Grindr, and she was well informed on all the dead ends that had preceded him; collectively she deemed them shitheads. I grimaced at her both illustratively, and because my legs were starting to spasm, pushing my feet against the footplates and my hips out of my chair, straining against my seatbelt. “But yes, anyway, I promised, so I will tell all tonight. Or at least most.”
“No, all!” Her eyes glinted devilishly.
I turned my attention from my legs, operating as usual according to the laws of another dimension, in order to pick up my fork and point it at her, while delivering a quelling glare.
And then, over the course of dinner I did tell her pretty much all – more than I’d told myself I would; I couldn’t help it, I wanted to share with Amy, knew that she would help me puzzle it out, put things in a new light, resettle the pieces back into myself, with affection and enthusiasm.
The most glaring omission I made: I did not tell her about the men in the alleyway. Even though it was Amy, even though Roy had close to literally hand-held me through the crime report, I still felt as if I couldn’t even talk to myself about what had happened. The thought of having to hold someone else’s anger, horror, anything, was purely overwhelming. (Likewise – despite our weekly phonecalls, I still hadn’t been able to tell my parents, which filled me with shame.) So, Roy made a vaguer, less extravagantly dramatic, but still serendipitous entrance onto the scene as someone I “just met” on my way home after the disappointing James-date.
Still, I told her a lot about Roy. Not everything, not the details about him that felt so precious and intimate that I couldn’t bear exposing them, as much as part of me wanted to shout them to the world, like how he looked when he was sleeping. But I tried to share with her the outline, the silhouette of him I was slowly filling out in my mind – his intensity, his habitual solitude, his sometimes bewildering sweetness, his preference for physical expression.
On this last point, Amy was fascinated. “I admit,” she said, leaning back in her chair – we had finished eating by that point – “I never imagined you with, like, He-Man.”
“I know! Isn’t it bizarre?”
“Not in a long-term way, at least,” she continued. I restrained myself from asking her whether she thought we had long-term potential, because I didn’t want to hear the answer. She was staring up at the ceiling with her hands behind her head, a slight frown crinkling her long, pale brows. I rubbed my right hand and wrist anxiously, pressed back slowly against the contracture, then slid my hand down to press against the tension in that elbow.
Amy sat up again and looked directly at me. “And you guys haven’t done anything yet?”
I knew what she meant. “No. Is that weird, two weeks in?”
“It’s not just ‘two weeks in,’ but you’ve been seeing each other a lot during those two weeks. – Not even like, just a little bit of fooling around? I know you smooch and spoon a lot –” I grinned involuntarily, and she smiled, the distinctive lines around her eyes deepening, “ – but nothing handsy?”
“No,” I admitted. Roy had never gone further than the massage he’d given me on the first night he’d come over – but I dearly wished he would.
There had been times, many times, when I’d been tempted to start something, but in those moments I might as well have lost all remaining motor function; I shrank inside myself, nervous, overwhelmingly conscious of my inexperience, and of my imperfect, ungraceful body. Next to mine, Roy’s body seemed to burn with potency.
I had woken up one morning to see him already awake and shirtless in the hallway, bouncing lightly from foot to foot, staring fixedly ahead at, I realized, his reflection in the bathroom mirror. His fists were raised. He darted back and forth, his bare feet weaving an intricate pattern on the floor, making soft scuffing noises; he ducked once, then threw a quick volley of punches at an invisible opponent. He was shadowboxing, I realized, a term that had never had physical meaning to me before.
He looked perfect, like a wild animal. Pure capability, pure motion. For some minutes I watched him in silence, until my arm started spasming, thudding my wrist against my chest, bringing me back to myself, and to a fuller realization of what I looked like, next to Roy.
“Okay,” Amy said, looking at me seriously again – I pulled myself out of that memory, out of the self-pity – “there are a ton of things that neither you nor I know here, which makes it hard for me to say what might be weird or not. But here’s my take. I do think it’s unusual, given how you say he looks and acts, the physical energy, that he hasn’t tried to move things forward with you. The fact that he probably hasn’t been with a disabled guy before, I have to assume that’s making him more cautious, it can’t not.
“There’s also the fact that you undoubtedly read to him as inexperienced. Sorry, babe, you know it’s true.”
“Guilty as charged.” I raised my hand. “Or, you know, virginal.”
“So, that’s two big reasons not for him to go in, uh, guns blazing, as it were.” She paused so we could both make retching faces at the double entendre, before she sobered up again. “And it does make me like him that, from what you’ve said, he’s been bending over backwards to be respectful in that regard.
“But I think one thing you need to keep in mind is, he could be seeing other people. I’m not saying he is! But it could be the case.” I’d known she was working her way up to a difficult point, but my stomach still sank at the suggestion, and my legs stirred again. The phrase “getting it elsewhere” flashed through my head, the phrase she’d been too diplomatic to use. She paused for a little while to let me work through my thoughts, before saying, “And, you know, it would be fine, right now, if he were seeing other people, because it’s not like you guys have discussed anything about that yet. Right?” I shook my head in confirmation; I admitted to myself that the need hadn’t even occurred to me. “But I just – I want you to be ready to protect yourself if you have to, Asher, emotionally.”
I thought for a while longer, trying to ignore my still-misbehaving legs, which were now “jogging” against my footplates. I tried to take the good Amy was offering – her brand of sensible, sardonic steeliness – and set aside the defensive hurt, the skittering anxieties. I looked up at her. “I’ll try to keep my eyes open. Thanks, Amy. You’re the best.”
Finally she smiled again, and blew me a kiss from across the table. “Have fun. Play safe. And pleeease make sure I get to meet him if things roll along much further.”
I hurried to agree, and after that she gently disengaged from the subject, moved toward lighter chat; I followed her gratefully, though part of me would have liked to pepper her with a dozen anxious questions.
After dinner, she walked me to the door without her crutches. “Hey,” I said indignantly as I followed her, “you never even gave me time to ask about you and Akshay.” Akshay was her boyfriend of over a year; the last update I’d received suggested they were getting quite serious, more serious than was habitual for Amy.
“Now you know it feels to want the juicy, juicy deets and not get, babe,” she said over her shoulder as she lurched the last step to the door, catching herself with one hand before shuffling back slowly to pull the knob open. I wondered if things had gone awry, hoped they hadn’t; her evasiveness could mean a lot of things, like she didn’t want to talk about it because it was getting serious. As straight-shooting as she was, Amy could be remarkably enigmatic about her own business. She continued, one eyebrow raised, “Dinner, your place, next week?”
“It’s a deal,” I said as I rolled out. “Thanks again, Amy. Really.”
“Make good decisions!” she yelled as I pulled out onto the sidewalk. It was pleasantly crisp outside, with a half-moon rising in a sky of a vibrantly deep blue. It was the first of November. I had a lot to think about.
Happy Valentine's Day!