I know that while most people might be fooled, Romina isn’t so easily deceived. I don’t know if she suspects that there’s something going on between Lauren and me but I’d bet my right arm she will soon.
And my right arm is my good one, in case that may not have been obvious to you.
Romina and I are pretty close, by necessity, and she knows every detail about my romantic relationships. Probably she even remembers every single time I had sex in the past because she’d been there, at least at the beginning (also the occasions weren’t so frequent that you’d lose count). Thankfully she has always been supportive of me and I can only hope she’s going to continue to be so.
We enter the dining hall among a surge of equally hungry conference participants. Usually I’d prefer a table near the entrance and to the side, so that I don’t have to navigate the wheelchair through a maze of chairs, fallen jackets, purses and people still milling around. However, a table like this needs preparation time.
“The best we got is over there,” Romina says. She points to a table in the middle section of the room. At least it’s to the side so I won’t be the total focus of the room. The tables closer to the entrance are nice round ones set in cozy alcoves, no wonder they’re already booked. That means, however, that I have to maneuver the narrow path between them, packed with people currently trying to squeeze through as well, plus waiters that are already hurrying to their first patrons.
One look at Romina is enough communication between us. She steps behind me and folds out the controls behind the headrest that allow her to steer the chair. I hate when anyone is doing that, even when she does it, since the powerchair is the only thing that I have some control over. But I know it’s necessary sometimes, for example when I have a bad spasm day and simply don’t manage to master the joystick at all or when the situation is complicated enough that it requires someone with better motor skills than mine.
Like right now.
Lauren magically stays at my side even when it gets crowded, and like that helps to keep people away from bumping into me. I don’t know if she does it on purpose but I’m certainly grateful for it. When I’m not controlling my chair I feel powerless enough without people randomly crashing into me, only to look down when they realize they walked into something below their eye level, their faces freezing in shock when they see me. No, I definitely can do without that.
We reach our table without causing too much trouble. It might have also helped that most people were still searching for their tables and didn’t pay much attention to their surroundings, so my entrance went unnoticed for most parts. Our seats are at the head of a longer table. The position is very convenient for Romina to assist me and Lauren to sit across from me at the same time and I inwardly congratulate Romina for what I’m sure was a rather fierce discussion with whoever manages the seating. I smile at Lauren as she hurries forward and removes the third chair, pushing it to the side and closer to the wall.
The two young men right next to us at the table look up when Romina bumps the wheelchair into the table's leg during the process of parking me, the empty wine glasses on the table swaying precariously. Well, no one ever said my aide was perfect.
“Sorry,” Romina murmurs to me as she sits down at the head of the table and I give a short snort, knowing she’ll understand that I’m not angry at her.
“Good evening.” Lauren smiles at everyone while Romina just nods into the round. I do nothing (well, obviously not nothing nothing. I guess my legs kick some and my contracted left arm trembles at my side. It wouldn’t surprise me if I were drooling a bit). The blond guy diagonally across from me takes a brief look at me, winces and hurriedly lets his gaze move on. The guy to my left remains with his wine glass raised halfway to his lips, forgotten, and stares at me from the side, his eyes bulging considerably.
“Um uh… Good evening...” The blond guy diagonally across from me seems to have come to the conclusion that Lauren at least is safe to converse with. “So... did you enjoy the conference so far?” he asks her. His smile grows unnervingly wide as he eyes her up and down. He has longer hair, neatly slicked back, and brown mottled glasses that are probably supposed to make him look intelligent.
I don’t think it’s working. At all.
“Um… yes, very,” Lauren says. “I just listened to an interesting talk from Patrick Hallman here.”
That jostles the guy to my left out of his stupor and he finally places his glass down before it can slip out of his hand. “Shit, we missed that, didn’t we?” he says to his colleague.
“Was it any good?” The blond asks Lauren, adjusting his glasses pointedly, and leans back, puffing out his – admittedly rather broad – chest. “I read a bit of that Hallman-guy's stuff.” He seems very proud of himself and I wonder if he expects a medal.
Lauren exchanges a quick glance with me and then smirks at the blond guy. “Oh yes?” she asks. “What do you think about it?”
Before he can answer, the guy at my left chimes in. “I never understood much of it, to be honest,” he complains in a nasal voice. He’s short but broadly built, with frizzy, dark brown hair. His shirt is too tight around his neck and he looks a little like a clothed chimpanzee. “Too many... indices and mathematical shit and such.”
Lauren weighs her head, hiding a grin behind her water glass. “Yes, it can get quite complicated.” She lifts her eyebrows at me over the rim of her glass and I suppress a snicker.
This seems to get interesting. I’m fairly knew in this field and I rarely show myself in public, which is why even people who have read my publications most likely haven’t met me in person. It turns out that that makes for quiet some funny situations.
The blond next to Lauren sighs theatrically and rolls his eyes. “Never mind him,” he groans, waving a hand at his companion. “He rarely gets anything.”
The chimpanzee reacts with disbelief. “As if you understood more!” he protests. “Did you forget throwing Hallman’s latest book against a wall?”
The blond shots him an angry glance to make him shut up and addresses Lauren again. “Anyway... We rather used the good weather to go to the beach today. You know... chilling a bit. People take this whole thing too seriously anyway.” He grins at her like the bad boy he thinks he is.
Lauren nods slowly.
“The entire point of this is having fun, isn’t it?” the guy says. He moves closer to Lauren and places his arm around the back of her chair possessively, exploiting the position to secretly peak at her décolleté. Suddenly I have this powerful urge to get around the table and punch his stupid glasses off him. Maybe it's a good thing I can’t do either. “I’m having fun right now. Do you?”
“Um…” Lauren leans a bit away from him, her nose crinkling in distaste but the blond doesn’t seem to catch the signals. He practically salivates over her.
“Since you've been to the talk...” the chimpanzee tunes in again quickly, “Maybe you could fill us in on what we’ve missed?” There’s clearly worry in his voice. Probably his boss is going to interrogate him about the contents of the conference and he’s afraid for his position. Well, he should be. If I were his boss, he’d not waste my money on the beach again.
The blond nods, his eyes suddenly sparkling as they’re still fixed on Lauren. “Yeah, we have time. There’re sure things that we can teach you in return... maybe after dinner, though?”
Lauren's eyebrows have nearly vanished under her hairline at the last part. “Well, if you have questions, you can ask Mr. Hallman directly. He’s sitting right there.”
And then it happens.
Because, believe it or not, the blond guy gets up from his chair and instead of looking at me, the person Lauren is gesturing at, he peers over my head to the table behind us, saying: “Oh my god, really, where?”
It’s like I’m fucking invisible.
As if I don’t really exist.
Which, for the blond, I probably indeed don’t.
Lauren looks at me, expression incredulous and her eyes growing, and I realize she nearly bursts with held-back laughter. Although the situation couldn’t possibly get any more annoying for me, somehow this girl just makes it all seem incredibly funny.
“Uh...” The chimpanzee watches me alarmed and then addresses Romina in a stage-whisper. “Is he... uh, shouldn't you do something? Is he having a seizure or what?”
Romina, my wonderful aide, leans forward a bit, takes one brief look at me and then sits back again. “Everything is alright,” she says with an absolutely straight face.
“Oh...” the guy answers dumbly and subtly tries to move his chair further away from me. He doesn’t look like he’s trusting Romina and completely fails at disguising a mildly disgusted expression. “Um... because of... he’s... uh...”
“Laughing,” Romina says matter-of-factly.
“He’s laughing,” Romina repeats.
“Oh... Oh!” The chimpanzee stares at me, wide-eyed. “What is he... what is he laughing about?”
That undoes me. And not only me. Romina and Lauren are shrieking with laughter so loud that people around us jump and crane their heads to look at us. I’m shaking so badly that my body slides sideways in the wheelchair, despite the support my customized molded seat provides. It takes us full five minutes during which several flustered waiters walk past our table until we’re able to order and Romina gets over and helps me sit up straight again, wiping tears and spit and whatnot from my face, still giggling. The two dumbheads look confused and indeed a bit jealous at being left out on an obviously great joke and thankfully don’t try to rope any of us into conversations anymore.
We chose for some kind of peach aperitif wine. It comes in small glasses with a long stem and I put much effort into not choking or emptying the glass in one pull. It works okay and I avoid having to ask Romina to put a bit of the food thickener powder inside, which always leaves a strange aftertaste. Lauren peaks over at me as Romina holds the straw to my lips and I cringe a bit at first but relax when Lauren smiles and downs her glass in one go.
Somehow, we don’t exclusively talk about work. Lauren tells me about the struggle of finding an apartment after she moved for her new work place, and about her roommate, an art student with completely reversed working times. They seem to get along well though. Lauren especially likes the cat, although it uses to wake her up by sitting on her face.
“And that’s only the first stage. If I manage to ignore the fact that I have this cat’s giant butt in my face and continue sleeping, he will start meowing very loudly into my ear and hit me with his paws. When I get up then, finally, he follows me to the toilet, sits in between my feet and looks at me reproachfully because I dared to empty my bladder before making him breakfast.”
I find Lauren’s openness irresistible and chuckle at the mental image. “He’s probably just preparing you for the time you’ll be living with your boyfriend,” I joke.
I started using the talker at the beginning of our conversation but I soon abandoned it in favor of Romina relaying what I say. It’s faster and worth destroying the anyway very vague illusion that we are having a one-on-one conversation here. Plus, whenever I speak, Lauren looks at me as if she’s trying to figure out what I say before Romina repeats it and there’s a strange, happy glimmer in her eyes. I would almost go as far as to say she may be enjoying listening to my voice, although I honestly don’t think that is even possible. Whatever it may be, I find her interest quite endearing and it definitely makes up for the mildly shocked looks that other people throw over to us when they hear me speak.
“Oh geez…” Lauren says, laughing as well. “Ah yes… I prefer a cat over a boyfriend then.” She winks at me.
Does that mean she’s single? It’s hard to believe, considering she’s easily the most beautiful woman in this room. Okay, that’s no real feat with hardly any woman present, but you get my point. Does it also mean she wants to stay single or is there a slight chance that I could compete with the cat? I’m not sure who will win, though. I’ve already accidentally slapped her once, and chances are high it will happen again. So maybe not…?
Romina gives me a short warning signal before wiping spit from the corner of my mouth with a napkin.
Rather not, I guess.
The first course arrives. It’s sweet potato soup with pieces of sautéed vegetables and shrimps. For Lauren and Romina it comes in ordinary soup plates, for me in the obligatory high glass into which the soup was poured to further blend it to completely smooth texture. Romina checks the temperature of the liquid and deems it too hot for me to take up through the straw, so the two women start eating while I wait for my portion to cool down. I’m used to that and it gives me the opportunity to take control of the conversation for once.
I’m curious to know where Lauren is from and it turns out that we’re actually from the same region. Since I’m still living only a few streets from the place where I grew up because close proximity to my parents is making my life hundred times easier, Lauren bombards me with questions of how the rapid growth of the city has changed life there. Apparently, she’s thinking of moving back as soon as her current short-term position ends. We argue a bit about the latest city developments but it’s more light banter than anything serious.
“I can’t believe you were in favor of that insane project,” Lauren says, smiling in mild disbelief as she shakes her head.
I try shrugging. “I couldn’t have cared less about expanding the airport. But the old one was a nightmare when it came to accessibility, and I knew they had to remedy that during rebuilt.”
“Oh…” It's obvious Lauren has never considered that point and why would she? “Yeah… I guess I see how that makes sense.”
The soup has finally cooled down enough and Romina lifts the glass up and turns the straw into my direction.
“Does it have shrimps?” I ask her, eying the thick liquid suspiciously.
Romina shakes her head and rolls her eyes. “Of course it doesn't,” she says. She knows me and I hate everything that comes out of the water. Maybe I wouldn’t if I could chew it properly, but at least blended everything fishy just tastes disgusting. It’s marginally better with meat, which is why I was endlessly relieved to hear that there was an alternative to the lobster.
The soup goes down well and Romina makes me eat all of it. She has a close eye on my diet and with her watching over it I’ve actually managed to gain weight during the last years. Which, for me, is a good thing.
The main dish follows shortly after the soup. The lobster is already without shell and I have to admit that it doesn’t look so bad altogether. This can’t be said of my steak, however. Even Lauren apparently can’t help but lift an eyebrow as the brownish, slimy liquid is served in a deep plate in front of me, and chimpanzee and the blond guy stare with blatant disgust at it.
“Uh-huh…” I say, smiling somewhat stiffly into the round. “Enjoy your meal.”
Romina tests temperature and texture of my food and scoops a bit of the mass onto a spoon. I’m trying not to look at anyone, especially not at Lauren, as Romina leads the spoon to my lips and I open my mouth to accept it. Romina is an expert in spoon-feeding me. She knows to wait until my head doesn’t move so much anymore, knows how to smoothly slip the spoon in between my lips without smearing its contents all over my face and the right timing of retreating it again, before anything I still have in my mouth can spill out. With her assistance I eat a few portions of what tastes remotely meaty and a bit of potatoes, but mostly rather bland with a consistency of mashed up cardboard, stubbornly keeping my eyes on either the plate or the spoon.
“How’s your steak?” Lauren asks with a shit-eating grin. “Did you order medium or rare?”
I nearly spit a mouthful of gray blended mass across the table.
Lauren’s grin only widens.
Romina clicks her tongue. “Geez… Patrick.” She’s ready with a napkin to save me from the outcome of the accident. “Concentrate.”
I do as I’m told and manage to convince my tongue to move most of the rest of what I have in my mouth back and swallow.
“You’re the devil,” I wheeze after a few pathetic attempts at coughing, glaring at Lauren over the table.
Lauren beams at me innocently. “I was just being polite,” she says, playing offended. “It looks formidable.”
“Ugh… if you like it so much we can swap,” I snap, but I’m grinning. God, this girl just manages to turn my mood around like nothing.
“That’s very considerate of you. But thanks, I think I’m fine with the lobster,” Lauren retorts, beaming, and lifts a piece of rosy meat on her fork to her lips, her large, intense eyes on me.
I blush under her gaze and hurriedly turn back to my meal. The two guys next to us goggle over at us and look as if they’ve completely lost track of what little brain they possessed.
After the main course there’s a short break, the table’s discussion moves to politics and I join in whenever I feel it, but mostly I listen. Lauren looks at me from time to time, smiling beautifully, and I feel content just looking back, taking in everything about her. I love the way she picks up her wine glass, very far down the stem with her fingers, and tips her head back just a little when she drinks, looking over the glass at me, the skin around her eyes crinkling with a smile. A lock of her hair falls over her shoulder, and she reaches up and tucks it behind her ear. For a moment I wish her hand was mine and I could do this mundane gesture for her, letting the pads of my fingers glide over her smooth cheek in the process.
Usually I forbid myself thoughts like this because they lead to nothing. I mean, even given the miniscule chance that one day we’d be emotionally close enough that I could be allowed to do this, I’d never be able to physically go through with it.
“What are you thinking of?” Lauren asks.
I blush upon being caught staring at her and stutter something about what to do tomorrow afternoon once the conference has ended. Not even Romina is able to pick my mushed-together words apart, so I just shake my head.
I can’t help but feel a little sad, despite the rather charming dinner. I usually don’t tend to feel sorry for myself because I know that despite the shit I’m going through on a regular basis, I’m actually rather privileged. I have all emotional support I could wish for, a caring family and amazing friends, and financially I definitely can’t complain. But right in the moment I’m just absolutely crushed by the fact that tomorrow I’ll have to say goodbye to Lauren again, that we didn’t have more time together because I’d love to listen to so much more stories of her and the fat cat, or basically every single thing that matters in her life, and that there’s no way she’ll ever see more in me than a nice guy with a PhD and a wheelchair.
This happens sometimes, sadly enough. People find me interesting, because of the disability or because of my professional achievements. Or both. But that interest evaporates as soon as they start to get an idea of what most of my life looks like.
And yes, whatever sexual tension I could feel between Lauren and me has vanished completely, which is partly good I guess because it made me relax and enjoy dinner with her. It also means, though, that I’ve lost all hope that this night could end differently than most of my nights. Romina has already sent me a telling look and I know it’s about time for me to retreat into my hotel room.
I rest my head back against the headrest and swallow a sigh. Lauren cards a finger through her hair and smiles warmly when her eyes find mine. I can’t help but smile back at her and this is when I realize there’s no real reason for me to be in a bad mood after all.
--> Chapter 4