When we exit the museum we still have another hour to go until the taxi will pick us up, and Lauren and I decide to have coffee in the museum’s cafeteria. It’s a glass building tacked into the side of the concrete museum building with a narrow door that I navigate with gritted teeth. The sleek metallic counter is very high and there’s a queue of people in front of us, so I can’t possibly read what is written on the chalkboards behind the counter. Lauren bows down to me and reads the menu to me. I appreciate the effort but unless I ask her to negotiate with the chef about getting me a blended cake or something I won’t really eat anything here.
When it’s our turn Lauren orders a milk coffee and apple pie with ice cream and whipped cream for herself, and a black coffee without sugar for me.
“Sure you want nothing to eat?” she asks me. The young barkeeper watches us from his position higher up, his face carefully guarded. I can tell he feels uncomfortable and if Lauren asked about blended cake, I’m pretty sure he’d make it complicated.
I shake my head.
I don’t want to stick out, again. I just want to have coffee with my date, like any ordinary person.
“Will that be all?” the guy behind the counter asks.
“Yes. A to-go cup with a straw for the black coffee, please.”
The guy stares, then nods and hurriedly goes to prepare our order. Lauren rolls her eyes at me and pays with my money, as I asked her to do when we got into queue. I’m glad she’s following my wish, because there have been uncountable situations in which people paid for me although I didn’t want them to, or although I even told them I wanted to invite them. I know that they mean well, but the thing is that the only reason they get away with it is that I can’t physically prevent them from doing it. So in my opinion it’s kind of a dick move.
Lauren takes our order over to a free table, which we only reach in the narrow space in the small cafeteria because she asks a few people to pull their chairs out of the way. I try not to let it get me down and smile friendly at the people goggling at me as I roll past, my twitching face on their eyelevel.
The coffee is surprisingly good and Lauren alternates with helping me and drinking some herself. Romina showed her how to fix the cup holder at a height that makes it possible for me to reach the straw myself but Lauren doesn’t use it. Because my head is not very steady I don’t usually manage to prevent spills when the cup is not moving in the direction that my head moves to, so I require a napkin when the flexible arm is used. If in public I prefer not to look even more retarded than I already do, and I’m really glad Lauren doesn’t seem to mind holding the cup for me. If anything at all she seems to enjoy it.
The other thing she seems to enjoy is the cake. From time to time Lauren is heaving fork-loads of the very delicious looking cake into her mouth, closing her eyes and smiling while chewing. I can barely suppress a grin seeing her like that, she's so happy and so beautiful in this moment it just takes my breath away. The ice is slowly melting on the warm apples, the whipped cream is creating white swirls on the black plate, and my stomach rumbles at the sight.
Lauren giggles. “You sure you want nothing?” she teases.
I fidget, uncomfortable, and don’t really dare to ask.
Lauren mixes a bit of the cake’s dough together with melted ice cream. “Would it work like this?” she asks, holding a spoon with the soft mass in front of me, grinning.
I hesitate. She’s already helping me with the coffee today and letting her feed me is certainly crossing a line over to a caregiving position in which I don’t want to see her. On the other hand, she looks so enthusiastic, her eyes sparkling, that I can’t find it in my heart to disappoint her.
Also the cake smells delicious.
I nod and Lauren carefully maneuvers the spoon into my mouth. It’s obvious that’s the first time she’s ever fed anyone, but I manage to close my mouth in the last moment to prevent anything to spill over my lips.
“How is it?” Lauren inquires.
“Um….” I swallow slowly and then direct my eyes to the coffee. Lauren understands and quickly switches between tasks to stick the end of the straw between my lips. I flush the remnants of the cake sticking to my palate down with the coffee.
“It’s good,” I finally say. It tastes indeed delicious, the ice cream is cool but the dough parts that are not totally blended together with the rest are still warm. “It’s got… cinnamon, right?”
Lauren nods. She goes on feeding me tiny bits of her cake mashed together with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream, and I savor every bit of it.
“I got a job offer,” Lauren finally says, off-handedly. She scratches the last crumbles of cake together and finishes it.
“That’s great,” I say, smiling at her. “When? Where?”
“Um…” Lauren drinks from her coffee and offers me my straw. “Yesterday, after we talked… I met one of my colleagues and told him about… you know… that I’m searching for a position and all that. He said he can help me get a job in another department. If he promotes me a bit I won’t have to go through the usual hiring procedure since I will basically just switch positions within university.”
I understand that to mean she won’t have a real job interview. “That’s good, isn’t it?” I ask. Lauren doesn’t look as happy as I’d expected her to be.
“Well…” she says, her eyes evading mine. “Yes and no. They’re going to build up a whole new research group, so it may be a chance for me to get a really good start. But… It’s of course located where I’m working now.”
Right. She won’t be moving back home then. Well, it would’ve been a lot of luck if that had worked out.
“Patrick...” Lauren sighs. “I like you…”
I don’t think I can count how many conversations have started out like this. They always end the same. I like you but more as a friend. I like you but not like that. I like you but-
“I really do. Back there in the room with the glowing sausages… If you hadn’t stopped me…”
I stare at her. Where’s she going with this?
Lauren rubs her forehead and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, grinning sheepishly. “I’m still pissed off this wasn’t a storeroom. I mean the sausages were kinda great but…”
I can’t help but chuckle. I felt the same, in a way.
Lauren sobers again and sighs. “I’m not sure I’m going to take the job.”
“Of course you are,” I say.
Lauren hesitates, frowning slightly. “Pardon?”
I move my hand over to the talker’s screen. “It’s a great offer, Lauren. Of course you’ll be taking it.”
Lauren’s still doesn’t look happy. “Yes, okay, but…”
“I’m glad it wasn’t a storeroom,” I type. It’s all in for me on this one.
Now it’s Lauren who is staring at me. “What?”
My hand spasms briefly because I’m trying to write too fast on the screen. I could try speaking but this would be really awkward if she didn’t understand me. “I wanted it, of course, but in a way I’m glad we didn’t go that far. I like you, too. I’d like more of you. I don’t know how to say this without sounding stupid but you’re not a person I’d want to have sex with just this one hurried time, in a storeroom of some museum.”
I think in a way I realized that just now. I want to have everything with Lauren, at the right time.
Lauren’s eyes soften. “Patrick…”
“What does it matter that we live a bit apart? We can still text each other and skype. I’ll fly over as often as I can, I promise. I want more than a one-night stand with you, Lauren.”
I look up at Lauren, my heart thundering in my ears. I try to keep my cool on the outside and for once I’m not betrayed by my body. But inwardly I’m dying. What if I completely misinterpreted everything she said?
“I… Me too,” Lauren says abruptly and blushes immediately, turning her gaze away from me. “I want more than that, too.” She smiles at me, uncharacteristically shy.
Gosh, she’s so damn amazing. I have no idea how I deserve her.
My body finally catches up with my inner turmoil. My knees lock, my left arm snaps to my side and my neck and parts of my face go stiff. Lauren uses her napkin to wipe at a bit of drool that escapes at the corner of my mouth. I want to die but her smile makes me reconsider.
Lauren takes my right hand and gently pulls it over the armrest and into her lap. We’re sitting very close, so she can help me with the coffee and the food, which is the only reason she can do this without hurting me. “You’d do that?” she asks, looking into my eyes hopefully.
Because I can’t speak I blink at her, questioningly.
“Fly over, regularly?”
I groan an affirmative, my head jerking to the side a bit. Sure. What are a few hours in a plane compared to seeing her?
Lauren shakes her head and smiles, brushing over my knuckles with her thumb. “I’m… I’m sorry,” she says and bites on her bottom lip. “I know so few about you. I didn’t think you could… Also it’s going to be expensive.”
I'd like to shrug but that's not really happening right now. Instead I groan again. I’m sure money won’t be a problem and of course I can fly over, how does she think did I come here? By driving the wheelchair across states? Probably she doesn’t realize how much time indeed I spend on board of planes. I chuckle a little and my hand twitches violently in Lauren's lap. She grips it more securely, closing her hand around my bent fingers. It feels so good, so fucking normal to be holding hands with my maybe-girlfriend in some random cafeteria, I can’t quite believe my luck.
Lauren averts her eyes. “I can’t pay for the plane ticket. Not very regularly, I guess.”
Her payroll must really be outrageously low. I’ve heard that to be the case for smaller, less popular universities, though, so it doesn’t really surprise me. It’s no problem, I’ll happily pay for hers.
“And even if I’d managed somehow, I don’t think I’d get off from work very often. I mean, the shortest flight connections are barely less than 24 hours, I think.”
Where the fuck does she live?
Lauren looks at me quizzically. “What is it?”
I try to pull my hand back from her lap and access the talker but I’m not very successful. The effort causes spasms to flare up again, my left arm flapping through the air.
Lauren doesn’t notice at once what is happening but when she does she blushes deeply. “Sorry,” she apologizes and helps me move my trembling hand to the screen.
“24?” I manage to type in with a bit of effort.
“Um… oh. Yes. I mean, it depends on where exactly you want to go, but 15 to 24 hours are normal flight times between Australia and the US.”
I don’t need to use the talker because my facial expression says everything, I assume. Lauren’s face falls immediately. “Yes. I work in Australia. You knew that, right? I mean… Uluru? Fieldwork?” She bites on her bottom lip, her eyes desparate.
No, I didn’t know shit. I thought she flew over there for a short-time working period. I certainly didn’t think she was living there!
Lauren stares at me, and laughs hollowly. “Holy shit, you didn’t know…” She buries her face in her hands. “I’m so, so sorry. I thought it was clear from what I told you.”
I jerk my head to the side. Nothing was clear.
Lauren groans into her hands.
She actually lives in Australia! I can’t believe my immensely bad luck. Of course I’d meet the woman of my dreams, only to realize we live 24 hours apart. And that’s only counting flight hours, not the time that goes into preparations before I can even think of flying, the time travelling to the airport, the hours of advance time I need to account for security checkup and boarding… And I may be in a comfortable financial situation but I’m pretty sure that paying not only for me but also my aide’s ticket to Australia and back will rip a hole even in my wallet if done too often.
We sit in silence for a while, the spasms dying down a bit.
“It won’t work, will it?” Lauren asks after a while. Both of the remnants of our coffees have probably cooled down to room temperature by now.
I shrug. I can’t say I’m very optimistic about a long-distance relationship to Australia. It probably won’t mean we’ll meet more often than once or twice a year.
“I thought so, too,” Lauren says as I type that in. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” It’s just bad luck I guess. My bad luck. But there’s something… “I’ll need a minute,” I say.
Lauren looks at me. She’s upset, her eyes shining suspiciously. She gestures with her hand. “Do you need me to—?”
I shake my head. “Meet you outside in ten?”
I push against the joystick to make the wheelchair jolt backward and then swing around to face the exit. I grunt impatiently at those people who sit in my way and even bellow at a few to move using my own voice, not caring to modulate the volume correctly. I barely notice most customers’ panicked scramble as they clear the space or the wide-eyed stares as I roll past. When I near the exit a guy jumps up from his seat to hold the door open for me and I don’t even look up at him as I drive past him without so much as a muttered thanks.
Lauren comes after me after a while. She has picked up her suitcase from the museum’s lockers and her eyes are a bit red but she’s managed to pull herself together. She even smiles a bit as she sees me. “You traumatized that guy sitting at the door,” she says. “I think that’s the last time he held the door open for anyone. Don’t remember having ever seen anyone so miserable.”
I glance back at the cafeteria entrance. Shit, I didn’t intend to scare the hell out of anyone. I guess I can be really nasty when I’m in a bad mood.
“The taxi won’t come in another ten minutes,” Lauren informs me.
I nod. “I called it to come earlier if possible.” Well, Romina did, after I asked her to. I made a few phone calls in the last minutes.
“Oh.” Lauren nods and looks down at her shoes.
We wait at the curb for the taxi to arrive. The driver is the same guy as before, because I assume there aren't many taxis of that sort around even in this big city. Lauren helps me get settled while the taxi driver is as gloriously helpful as before, and then we’re off to the airport.
The drive is silent for most parts. Lauren and the driver are sitting in the front and I’m sitting in my wheelchair in the back. I can only see part of Lauren’s face and her hair from behind because she doesn’t turn around to me this time. Traffic is smooth and we’re getting close to the airport much faster than anticipated.
“Can you stop here for a second?” Lauren suddenly asks the driver about halfway between the museum and the airport. He gives her an annoyed look but pulls over at the next possibility.
“What’s wrong now?” the driver asks Lauren as she exits the car. He's leaning over the middle console to look at her as she jumps out.
“Nothing,” Lauren quickly says and pulls open the sliding doors to the back. I watch her duck inside and squeeze through to me, a grin on her lips.
“There’s no place for two people back there,” the taxi driver says impatiently. He has turned around and is frowning at us in the back.
He’s right, in fact, because the taxi itself isn’t really big and the powerchair takes up most of the space. I think there’s a seat folded down on one side but it’s exactly where I’m parked.
“Sure there is,” Lauren says and sits on my lap sideways with one arm around my neck. She straightens her dress and turns to look at the driver. “Let’s go?”
The taxi driver stares. “This is against safety regulations,” he complains, not moving a finger to pull into traffic. “I can’t do this.”
Lauren tightens her hold around me. “Oh come on…”
It doesn’t sound like there’s anything that may change his mind and Lauren sighs, defeated.
It shakes something awake in me. “I need her to…” I start saying. I can barely get a grip on myself with Lauren sitting in my lap, again so wonderful close to me it’s making me dizzy.
“I need to make sure that…?” Lauren repeats what I’ve said, looking at me quizzically. The taxi driver stares at me with wide eyes while I try to get my jaw and tongue to cooperate enough to continue talking.
“That I’m not getting sick,” I finally manage to say. “I don’t take sitting in the back very well, you know.”
Lauren relays word-by-word. The taxi driver frowns and looks like he’s seriously considering throwing us both out. “He’s very welcome to sit in the front,” he snaps nastily. I’m almost sure he knows that’s no option for me. “But I won’t take you with me like this.”
Lauren freezes and sits up. She slowly tilts her head. “Did you just say you’re refusing to transport a severely disabled man in your car?”
The taxi driver swallows.
“I’m sure you didn’t say that, am I right?” Lauren asks in a dangerously sweet voice. “Patrick, did you hear this guy saying he won’t take you in his taxi?”
I groan something unintelligible on purpose and try to evade the boring gaze of the taxi driver.
The face of the taxi driver grows red with anger and he opens and closes his mouth a few times. “Fine,” he hisses finally. “Is he going to vomit?”
I try shaking my head but end up bumping it into the headrest with a muffled grunt.
“Don’t think he will. If you drive carefully,” Lauren says smugly and I feel a grin tug at my lips.
I didn’t know that side of her yet, I guess.
The taxi driver scowls at Lauren for a few seconds but then he abruptly turns back to look out the front. The motor howls, the van bumps down the sidewalk and we’re back on the road. The furrowed eyebrows of the pissed-off taxi driver track us in the rearview mirror.
Lauren turns to me, smiling, and her face lowers to mine. “That was amazing, Patrick,” she whispers, her lips moving close to my cheek.
I grin and tilt my head to her, giving the compliment back.
“Is he going to kiss me?” Lauren whispers, imitating the way the taxi driver talked over me instead of to me.
He may be damned if he doesn’t.
I don’t say that, though, because it would take too long and we don’t have time for unimportant things. I lean forward a fraction, concentrating on the task ahead with my right hand braced on the armrest, and kiss her.
--> Chapter 9
--> Chapter 9