Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lobster, With A Straw - Chapter 6



I briefly debate imitating the jackasses from dinner and letting the rest of the conference slide to have more time to spend with Lauren the next day. However, I have a few important meetings to attend in the morning and discussion rounds I can’t miss, and Lauren has appointments too, she explained. So we simply exchanged numbers and decided on a time when she’ll pick me up at the hotel.

I’m in the middle of eating breakfast the next morning in my hotel room when there’s a knock at the door. Before I can react, the door flies open and Romina sticks her head in.

“Wu wother iffs on fe whone,” she says, her toothbrush still in her mouth and her hands occupied with my laptop. Her curly hair is already tied in a messy bun and she’s changed out of her sleeping clothes by now. She isn’t a morning person while I usually wake up before the sun, so you’d think we weren’t compatible at all.  But somehow she’s figured out a way to wash and clothe me in the mornings while still halfway asleep and it’s working surprisingly well, although I sometimes need to remind her that she’s already shampooed my hair and I always keep a close eye on my clothes to prevent them being inside out.

Now, quite some time after I woke up this morning, Romina seems to be awake. Somewhat.

I swallow my breakfast (a shake the color of puke that, as far as I’m informed, is supposed to be a mix of milk, fruits and cereals but could really be pieces of my hotel room’s wallpaper dissolved in orange juice) and release the straw to turn my head around to Romina. The tip of the straw promptly turns away from me, facing the other way now.

Crap. Of course. It will be a pain in the ass to move it back without knocking the entire glass out of the cup holder by accident.

“Pardon?” I ask Romina. Even with her toothbrush in her mouth her speech is probably ten degrees clearer than mine, but that still doesn’t mean I can understand her this way.

Romina grunts, shifts the laptop to balance it with one hand and removes the toothbrush. “I said, your brother’s on skype. Do you want me to—”

“Just give Patrick to me, Romina. What’s so important, anyway?”

That’s my brother’s voice. I recognize the teasing undertone in it.

Romina glares at the laptop’s screen that I can’t see from where I’m sitting in my wheelchair. “Food, William,” Romina snaps. “It’s kind of important for living. Actually, I’d thought you knew.”

My brother laughs and shoots something back that I don’t fully understand from the other side of the room. I wiggle my head at Romina. “It’s alright. Give him to me. I’ll finish later.”

Romina sighs and marches up to where I’m sitting at the window with the view over the city. She slams the laptop down on the table in front of me. “You’ve got five minutes,” she says. “We haven’t really done any stretching yesterday. And this better be empty when I return.” She taps the shake, but it doesn’t escape my attention that she quickly moves the straw back to point in my direction before she retreats.

She’s an angel. Of the pesky kind.

I groan for show but smile at Romina’s back and then at my brother. He’s sitting in his office behind his desk and is currently cleaning his greasy fingers on a brown paper towel. From the looks of it, he’s just had lunch.

“Good morning, little brother,” William greets me and gives me one of his signature smiles that brings out his dimples. I guess it’s the same smile as mine, only it lasts longer than a split second and his face doesn’t twitch with spasms. Our eyes are similar, too, as is our hair, thick and of dirty blond color. My brother wears it cut shorter than I do, with only the front getting a bit tousled. Apart from that we couldn’t be any more different. Of course there’s no wheelchair on my brother’s side of the screen, he slouches in his office chair but his body doesn’t show the deformities mine does, his movements are controlled and effortless and his arms strong if not muscular but rather soft-fleshed below the rolled up sleeves of his shirt. There’s a bit of a pouch starting to show, too. My brother’s taste for junk food and aversion against any physical exertion are finally paying their toll. I guess that was what Romina was referring to just earlier.

“It’s always been a pleasure to talk to your charming aide,” William says with a smirk.

“I can still hear you,” Romina hisses at him, the handle of the door in her hand.

“That was a compliment!” William yells back at her, grinning.

“Yeah, thanks. And you’ve got dirt on your tie.” Romina pulls the door closed behind her.

“Hello, Will.” I watch the screen where William is now trying to get rid of the spot on his tie by dabbing at it with another paper towel. It’s probably a mustard stain or something from his beloved hotdogs. He likes them greasy and dripping.

“So…” William says, squinting down at his dark green tie that is only marginally cleaner now. “How did it go yesterday?” He grins at me and I feel my cheeks heat up.

Did Romina tell him about Lauren? I can’t quite believe she would but then again… she’s got a lose mouth and she likes to gossip. Great, I really didn’t want that to happen, now William isn’t going to let me breathe. It always makes him unbelievably happy when a woman even so much as approaches me and I don’t think I can face his nagging questions right now. What am I going to say, anyway? That I found an amazing woman who on top of being ridiculously attractive seems to be into me, too? Yeah, no, this isn’t a topic I feel comfortable discussing with my brother. We’re close, as much by necessity as by choice, but this is something we’ve always avoided talking about in too much detail.

“Geez, Patrick, relax… It can’t have been that bad, can it?” William moves closer to the screen, the concerned frown barely disguised on his face. I notice my right arm has gone rigid, the fingers curling to a tight fist, and my left is shaking in its position at my side. My breathing has gone laborious with my chest squeezing. Damn my treacherous body. “Your talks are usually great, so…”

Shit. The talk! William is talking about the talk I gave on the conference yesterday. I can’t believe that it’s been only one day that I advanced the slides in the room with the silent men staring at me. It feels like it was ages ago.

I force a hoarse chuckle through clenched teeth and manage to inhale a shaky breath. “No, it… it went well, I think.” My jaw is tight, too, and my head is thrown around while I speak, so I check with my brother before continuing. He usually understands me as effortlessly as my parents, but there are limits. “There was a weird question from one guy but… the rest was okay, I guess.” I tell him about the older man in the gray suit who doubted my results were real, while the spasms subside.

“Ah…” William leans back in his office chair, nodding his head. “I think I know who you’re talking about. Well done, little brother, at any rate. Guess who will be at the next talk this guy gives, huh?”

“Will…” William has always been quick to defend his pride, and that usually included me as well. I don’t need him to fight my fights, though. We’ve gone over this a million times.

William waves one hand and pulls a small plastic container toward himself with the other. “Please, let me have some fun, Patrick. You know I love this.”

I sigh but I don’t protest. I know him too well and there’s no point in trying to change his mind.

William opens the plastic container, sniffs at the content and pulls out a piece of carrot. He squints at it as if it might assault him, then takes a bite off with a suspicious frown on his face.

“What the hell are you eating?” I ask. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen my brother eat salad. Or any raw vegetables.

“Megan makes me eat those. Says I need to change my diet.” William pats his slightly protruding belly with a sad expression. Megan is his latest girlfriend. I’ve met her only shortly and she made a nice impression on me. She seems to be slightly less dumb than the average of my brother’s girlfriends, at least. And she didn’t stare. Much. “Not everyone can have your body.”

I grimace at William. “Don’t think anyone would want to.”

William chuckles and throws in another handful of carrots. “These are disgusting,” he says.

“You’ve had hotdogs, though?”

William shrugs. “Yeah sure. She said, eat those. She didn’t say anything about not eating hotdogs.” He looks at me with the glint in his eyes that I assume makes the girls swoon. Seriously, when he grins like that he looks like an adorable twelve your old who snitched daddy’s cigarettes.

I can’t suppress a grin myself. As soon as Megan manages to make him give up on eating hotdogs for real, I should probably go buy a suit for the wedding, I assume. Now that I come to think of it, it occurs to me that Megan and William have actually been together for quite a while. Much longer than most of William’s relationships lasted, if I’m not mistaken. There might really be a chance for wedding bells in the not-so-far future, I’m afraid.

I’m not sure William knows that yet. But I guess he’ll be informed soon enough.

“What?” William asks, gesticulating at me with a carrot.

“Nothing,” I say, trying to look inconspicuous. Not an easy task if there’s an eternal miscommunication between your brain and your muscles. 

I realize I actually feel happy for William. Maybe he's always been the one of us who had it easy with the girls, but then again... apart from a bit of fun and the right curves at the right places I'm not sure there was ever more to his relationships. I'm glad he found someone. And I'm slightly impressed he found someone who puts up with him.

Williams squints at me but then he leans back in his chair, weighing his head. “So… Patrick. Want to tell me what really happened yesterday?”

Now it’s my turn to frown at him. “What do you mean?”

William finishes his carrots with apparently great disgust. “You’re not the only genius in the family, brother. You were getting all weird when I asked you about yesterday.” He grins triumphantly and sticks a finger at the screen. “You got a secret!”

I roll my eyes.

“Did it happen before the conference talk, or after? Mmmh… after, huh? Did you go to the conference dinner?”

I give him the stink eye.

“Oho! It’s something serious. Meaning you didn’t meet with a Nobel Prize winner and decided to leave me to work with them, that’s something. But you met someone.”

I groan.

“A woman?”

“Okay, geez Will!” My right hand slams down on the armrest. “Yes, it’s a woman. Happy?”

William’s eyes are sparkling. “You bet. What’s she like? I hope she’s a step up from your usual.”

I knock my right hand into my chest, my way of flipping him off. He laughs but waves his hands in defeat. I know he would never have dated any of the women that I’ve been with, but he knows it’s the same way around.

“She’s actually hot,” I mumble finally, not looking at him. I don’t know why I feel the need to tell him that. “Which is totally beside the point because she’s just great.”

“Uh huh… she’s hot?” My brother doesn’t seem nearly as surprised as I’d expected. And much less enthusiastic all of a sudden. “What’s Romina’s opinion on her?”

I frown at him. “Since when do you care?”

William shrugs. “Just asking. She probably met her as well.”

I snort unconvinced. “Yeah… She…” I try thinking back to Romina’s behavior yesterday. Actually… “I think she might like her. A bit.” It hasn’t occurred to me until now but it’s true.

William seems to relax. “Oh well, that’s… excellent.” He grins broadly. “Go get her, brother!” He winks at me and I groan exaggerated.

Weirdly enough, though, that’s all William says to that. Not much time later Romina interrupts our discussion, convinces William to get back to work and leave me alone and watches me like a hawk until I finish breakfast. A short version of the despised stretching exercises follows a hurried brushing of my teeth and then we’re ready to go.

***

I don’t expect to meet Lauren before noon. When I cruise down the corridor after the first coffee break, though, waiving in and out of the crowd of people, ignoring the startled looks I draw upon myself, I spot Lauren sitting in a corner by the stairs. My heart rate instantly speeds up. She’s wearing a black business dress, much more formal than yesterday, the red ribbon in her hair the only individual note catching my eye this time. Her gaze is turned down to her phone and when I approach her I can sense that something is not right.

I ask Romina to wait for me in the back and steer the wheelchair toward the stairs alone.

Lauren’s head flies up as soon as she hears the humming of my chair getting closer and she smiles a bit, but I can see the remnants of tears glistening in her eyes.

“Hey,” I greet her, concentrating on parking with some distance to her, afraid I might bump into her crossed legs if I tried to get any closer.

“Hi…” she says, wiping at her cheeks quickly and tucking the phone into her bag.

“What’s wrong?”

For a moment I’m afraid Lauren may not have understood me although I did my best to articulate properly. But then she shrugs and says: “I told you I think about going back home, didn’t I?”

I nod. Her current position will end in almost a year and she’s looking for further employment options, preferably around the area where she comes from. Around where I live.

Lauren sighs. “Well, I just had a job interview. The companies’ headquarters would be an hour by car away from my parent’s house.”

Which means it’s probably as close to mine as well. I watch her attentively. It would be awesome if she moved back.

“I totally butchered it.”

That comes as a surprise. I’d have thought that an intelligent, not to mention good-looking young woman like her would kill every job interview. My head wiggles as I continue to look at her, trying to convey with my eyes that I feel sympathy for her and inquiring for more details. All of that would’ve taken way too long to type on the screen or try to form into words.

Lauren gets it. She turns her phone around in her hands a few times, then continues. “It’s my fault,” she says. “I… I’ve always just panicked in exam situations.” She shrugs but her posture remains tense. “It was the same back when I was a student at university and that’s why my grades are what they are. I can be lucky when anyone even invites me to a job interview. I just…” She blinks away more angry tears. “Everything just goes blank, you know.”

I nod my head, slowly. It’s hard for me to picture her like that, but I can see she’s truly devastated about it.

Lauren squeezes her hands together, staring at them. “I went into that room and sat in front of that desk, and there was this guy and a woman, looking at me like they were about to grade me and I… I just lost it.”

More tears start running down Lauren’s cheeks and I feel so damn helpless in that moment, strapped into the wheelchair and unable to do even something as simple as reaching out with my hand to squeeze her quivering shoulders.

“I’m… sorry,” I manage to say, slurring like crazy. I honestly doubt Lauren understood me. My right fist shivers into action and leans over to the talker to type on the screen. Although I try to be fast it takes forever, the muscles in my arm tightening up the more effort I put into it.

“Shit, I’m… I’m sorry that I’m telling you all that,” Lauren says, sniffing her tears back up and averting her face. She grabs her bag and gets up to leave. “I guess you don’t need to hear it.”

“Wait,” I call after her, but my throat is seizing and not much comes out. Still, Lauren stops mid-step and turns to me, almost dutifully.

I swallow my irritation at that and steer the wheelchair closer to her, away from the less crowded spot at the side of the stairs. A guy running around with his nose in his phone almost crashes into us, apologizes profusely and repeatedly to me and disappears among the masses.

I don’t spend a second thought on it. I need to find something that will make Lauren listen to me. “Do you see a therapist?” the talker says.

Lauren looks at me like I just asked her if she can make a handstand on my shoulders. “What?!”

I know that look and I scroll through the quick-selection section, searching for something. “Coffee.” I turn the chair around on the spot, heading down the corridor and essentially away from the coffee corner situated inside the conference building. It’s growing much too crowded for my liking.

I can only hope Lauren is following me, and indeed her elbow appears in my line of sight. “Where are we going?” she asks.

I jerk my head to the exit and wait for her to hold the door open so that I can roll through. Before I do, I angle the chair back a bit.

“See you in 10, please?” I ask Romina who has followed us in surprisingly respectful distance. She stops and frowns at first. But then she nods and lets herself fall back with the crowd.

The wheelchair bumps over a miniscule ledge and onto the thankfully wide and even sidewalk. I go a bit easier on the joystick, aware of the cars rushing past us narrowly. The air outside is moist and warm and my shirt starts to stick to my skin almost immediately.

Lauren has been surprisingly patient but now she begins to get restless. “Patrick, what the heck-“

But we’ve already rounded the corner and stand in front of an outside coffee stand. It’s not the best coffee but there’s almost no queue, due to the hot weather and also because conference people usually don’t like to walk very far. For me it’s the perfect place to get a bit of peace. It’s not my first time at this venue and I had figured these things out rather quickly.

“Oh…”

I steer to the high counter and Lauren follows me.

“Um… how do you take your coffee?” she asks when the guy behind the counter looks down at us expectantly.

“Black, without sugar,” the guy says and grins at me. “Hi Patrick!”

One of the perks of being me is that everyone will remember you in all detail once they’ve met you. For years.

It’s also one of the pet peeves.

Luckily I have a good memory for peoples’ names and faces. “Mike…” I drawl and jerk my head into a greeting.

Mike beams happily. “And the lady?”

“Um… with milk and sugar, please,” Lauren says. She ends up paying because Romina has got my money but I try not to feel too bummed out by it. I hope I can repay her soon.

Lauren carries the two paper cups over to an empty set of tables and chairs. I park between two wide-spaced chairs and she gets into a plastic chair across from me.

“Um…”

My coffee has a straw in it but I would need her to either put it in the cup holder and fix the flexible arm that is attached to it to the right height or hold it up for me to reach it. “It’s too hot,” I type on the screen. “Enjoy yours.”

Lauren blows into her coffee and sips from the brown liquid in her cup, relaxing a bit into the seat for the first time. I use the break to type more. “Tell me from the beginning. If you want.”

Lauren sighs. “What’s there to tell? I… You know what?” She crosses her arms in front of her chest. “I’m so pathetic, I have no idea how I even got a PhD! Certainly not because I shone in the examination. Someone in my committee must have had a heart or something... I only got my current position because the internet connection wasn’t good enough for a proper job interview via video, I presume, and my current boss and I chatted using the text messenger. That… that was easier, somehow. And then today… Ugh…” She looks like she’s going to start crying again.

I really wish I could somehow comfort her physically. I’d put my arm around her shoulders and let her lean against my chest but there’s no way for me to do this on my own. “Is it the exam-like situation?”

Lauren nods, her lips a straight line.

There’s enough time for me to compose the next sentence. “This sounds serious, Lauren. I wasn’t joking before.”

Lauren winces and laughs stiffly. “Uh huh… it’s not that bad.”

I stare at her and she blushes. “Okay, yes… it is. But it shouldn’t be such a problem, alright? If I could just wrap my head around it and stay calm like any normal person… It’s not that I usually fear talking to people or talking about my work. I love my work! It’s just… I don’t know, I can’t do it in a situation like that.” She groans. “It shouldn’t be so hard, damn!”

I nod, slowly. “Doesn’t matter. It’s hard for you.”

“It shouldn’t be,” she repeats stubbornly.

I try fixing her with my eyes, but my head wiggles around too much to hold eye contact for long. “You want that job, right?”

She sighs. “Yeah…”

“Then do something about it. You know that you could get help?”

Lauren rubs her forehead. “I know… I just don’t want to.” She sighs again. “I could’ve gotten extended time for writing exams back when I was a student at university and I always refused because I don’t want to be singled out, you know? I don’t want to be the poor kid that gets special treatment because something is wrong with her. I don’t want to get a job offer out of pity and I don’t want to have to see a stupid therapist!” She angrily sips her coffee.

“I have a business meeting to attend in five minutes,” I type.

Lauren looks disappointed for a moment but then she nods, about to get up again.

“I prepared a presentation for the meeting,” I continue and she stills, frowning at me confused but waiting for me to finish typing.

“I’d want to give it myself, standing up, writing things on the whiteboard like the other people at the meeting. I’d want to answer questions directly.” My head gets thrown back by spasms, bumps against the headrest and knocks a groan out of my chest. I authorize the rest of the text being send to the speakers with some delay. “But I can’t do any of it. The talker will give the speech. And like always, Romina will translate what I say after that.”

Lauren blinks at me and plops back in her chair. “Gosh, I’m sorry…” she whispers, her cheeks growing rosy.

I lift my hand quickly to stop her from saying what I very well know she wants to say, inwardly cringing already. It’s difficult to return my hand to the screen again after that but I manage with utmost concentration. “I’m not saying I got it harder than you,” I hurry to write. “It’s not about that. But look, I don’t want to do this either. This conference thing. You think I like being stared at the entire time?”

In fact, usually my brother is the one who goes to events like these because I’m glad to take any opportunity not to have to go. I guess I’ve argued with him about it enough already. So yep, who am I to talk to Lauren about that?

The thing is, I get where she’s coming from, I truly do, but I also know that sometimes you have to take the bitter pill. I have my brother to kick me in the ass for that and I figure Lauren needs someone like that, too.

Yes, I know the kicking part might become hard for me to accomplish, thank you very much.

I shrug before sending the last part to the talker. “Events like this are a vital part of my work and have led to so many beneficial encounters, it wouldn’t really be possible without it. So, it’s either doing it in a way that I don’t like or not doing it at all. You’ve got to make that decision.”

Lauren ponders over that. “Shit…” she says after a while and throws her empty coffee cup in the bin. She places her elbows on the table, chin in her hands. “I guess you’re right.”

“But I know… how you feel,” I say in my own voice, abandoning the talker and ploughing through the vowels like I am trying to win a prize. I really want her to get this. “It’s not… easy.”

Lauren sighs and squeezes my right underarm, which, to my surprise, holds relatively still for the short moment it lasts. “Thanks. Thanks for sharing.”

“Now get me the coffee,” the talker reads and I try a somewhat shaky smile. At the same time I try not to think about how it felt when she touched me, her soft fingers closing around my arm, warm and tingling…

Lauren chuckles and grabs my cup, holding the straw up to my lips. I’m glad she doesn’t seem to be so sad anymore. Maybe my little speech indeed has helped.

“I thought you have to be at a meeting about now?”

I shrug a bit, my legs quivering. “They’ll wait. They need to get used to waiting anyway.”



--> Chapter 7

10 comments:

  1. Such a touching chapter! I really enjoyed seeing Patrick's relationship with his brother - where they are and aren't comfortable teasing each other or testing boundaries. And of course I appreciated the hint of protectiveness when Will was at first wary at Lauren being described as "hot."

    And sooo many more touching, and devvy, moments during Patrick's pep talk with Lauren.

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    1. Thank you, Rowan! Makes me so happy to hear :) Haha, right, Will got a bit protective there. Big brothers.

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  2. Another great chapter, thanks so much for posting!!!

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    1. Thank you for your comment! I'm happy you like it :)

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  3. Ooh, love the new addition with William!

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    1. Haha, thanks, Annabelle. Well, it was your suggestion. It really worked well in the story, thanks!

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  4. Oh, so very wonderful ! I love the intimacy of Patrick's advice to Lauren.

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    1. Thanks, Pepper. Loved writing that scene, them opening up to each other...

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