I stare, dumbfounded.
"What is that?"
"Exactly what it looks like." He's grinning like a champ.
"Ben, you didn't."
"You bet I did."
"You ruined your car."
"It's just a utility." He shrugs. It really fucking isn't. Because Bernardo now has a fucking bike rack in his car. In his sexy, sporty, expensive car. "So I can pick you up more often."
I can't believe that. In fact, I can believe it, and my stomach doesn't like it. This is serious. This is more than serious—this is commitment. He can't even claim he's doing it for his sake too; he's a paraplegic. He doesn't bike. I suppose he could, but I know he doesn't. And if he did, his equipment certainly wouldn't fit in this small, able-bodied rack.
"This is…" I shake my head.
He frowns. "You don't like it."
"I just…" I turn away from him. "I can't believe you did that—to your car. Your beautiful car."
"What is it good for if I can't just take you with me whenever?" He tugs at my hand, making me look down at him. And Ben looks so cute and proud at himself that it's almost enough to wash away all of my doubts. I suppose he could always just take it off. It's not like a shower seat attached to a wall. "Liv, a car is just a utility too."
And of course he'd say that.
"Spoken like someone who can afford one."
"You do understand that city mobility is extremely tricky in a chair, right?" He lifts an eyebrow. "So as long as it fits me, and takes me wherever I want to be, it's a utility. And now I want you to fit in it too, hence..."
He pats the rack attached to the back of the trunk.
I hadn't considered that. I press my lips into a tight smile and bend over to kiss his cheek. "Thanks. It's really sweet."
He shows me how to put my bike in it, and I do. It kind of defeats the eco-purpose of using a bike, but it was never really an eco-choice, was it? It's just my broke or woke game. Still, I feel a chill going down my spine.
Ben is once again picking me up from work. It's a part of my routine now—it doesn't matter how late or early, there he is. It's too dangerous to bike around the city at 3 am, he'll say when I tell him not to worry about it, keeping the fact that I actually Uber my ass home when it's that late, and not so secretly wishing he'd come anyway. Ben always comes. Even if just to see me during my break; we'll get food in a drive-thru and eat in the car, or have some takeout in the hospital parking lot. Always together.
Usually he'll take me to his place. I already know the mechanics of his apartment, the 1950s original bathroom in the guest room that was never remodeled and has only two shower temperature modes—volcano hot or lapland cold. No in-betweens. But I always take my shower there, in volcano-hot mode, so that I won't disturb Ben's privacy in his own perfectly remodeled bathroom.
And today, for the very first time, he gets to drive me—us—to my apartment. I don't think I have nails anymore.
"Where can I park?" He asks me as we near my block. The million dollar question. I look around, suddenly aware that I have absolutely no idea.
Parking in São Paulo is gold. As in, that's how rare and how much it costs. We're talking about a city that has to limit the amount of cars in the streets on business days by license plate numbers—I was surprised to find out Ben was exempt from that, but I guess it makes sense; they'd first have to improve the fucking sidewalks and public transportation system before demanding he gives up on his car, so it's less costly to the City, by a few billion dollars, to just let him have it.
We do find a free parking area near my building, but there's no handicapped spot. I see his eyes wandering around strategically, trying to find the best way to park and make sure he can get out.
He ends up taking up two individual spots, parked right between the lanes.
"You'll get a ticket." I unhelpfully remind him.
"I know." Like that's a common occurrence.
Goddammit. I'll have to talk to the building management and see if they have a parking spot in my building I could rent and-
Hang in there, girl.
My skin is burning in embarrassment when we find no curb cuts on top of that, and he struggles to tip his chair high enough so he can access the sidewalk. I almost, almost ask if he wants help, but I don't. He makes it.
With my heart hammering my chest, I hold the heavy elevator door for him and press my floor. He seems unfazed.
"Keep in mind that…" I start.
"Livia, I already promised I won't mind the mess."
I tap my shoe loudly as we ascend. I wish I had had time to make it less… Bachelor
Mother would kill me.
I hold the door open again so he can wheel out, not entirely sure he can do it himself, and rush to my apartment door.
"Keep in mind that I'm never home."
"And that this isn't how I normally live."
"You might find my underwear all over the place."
"Are you seriously excusing yourself for that?" He smiles. "To a guy?"
I roll my eyes and unlock the door, taking a small peek inside before I can let him in.
I have a small one bedroom apartment that's meant for a minimalistic way of life.
But I'm not a minimalist.
I love plants. They beautifully hang off my TV and shelves, bright green. Huge plants, like human-sized ones, and medium-small ones. The different types of ivy, and the peace lillies that flower once a year if I'm lucky. I started with one single orchid, and it became a monster. Next thing I knew, I'd turned into my grandmother—I hunt them. I don't hesitate to knock on strangers' doors to ask for samples of the ones I see in their garden.
I don't even have a green thumb.
I can see Ben taking it in, his eyes going around in complete amazement.
"Holy shit." He says. "I think you might be single handedly responsible for deforesting the Amazon Forest this past decade, Liv."
I push his shoulder. "It's a hobby."
"Or maybe a compulsion?"
I ignore him.
Aside from the plants, my apartment is a mix of different decoration styles with nothing tying them together—not like Ben's perfectly concise 1950s style. It's also a bunch of unfinished DIYs, like the half painted TV stand and the huge macrame hanging on the wall behind the couch that I convinced myself to start as a fun project but never really went past the half part. I will, though. Someday.
And there's a week-worth of clothes draped over the furniture. I go around picking it all up.
"I don't know what you were worried about." Ben says as I disappear down the laundry room. "Aside from the forest thing…"
"You're kind of a neat freak."
"Me?" He scrunches up his eyebrows adorably. "Am not."
"Your place is extremely organized."
"Yeah, that's not exactly a choice." He does a quick pressure shift. "I broke a lot of shit before I figured out I needed floor space. Lena does the housework for me."
"Lena?" My ears perk up.
"Yeah, twice a week." He keeps going. "She does the groceries too, because supermarkets suck. And cooks if I ask."
My head conjures up a pretty blonde in a sexy french maid costume, dusting off his furniture.
"Lena sounds really helpful."
The image intensifies. "I bet she is."
I wipe my two chair breakfast table a bit more aggressively. To get rid of the coffee stain, of course.
"She's so nice that she… prays for me."
"That's… nice, I guess."
"With a hand over my head and all."
"She prays that I walk someday, of course. And find a girlfriend. That I'll make very happy indeed by…" he puts his hand on my ass. "...eating her out on a table when she's bending over and feeling jealous."
God, why does he gotta be like that? A shiver runs down my neck.
"Oh, she tells you that?" I laugh.
"She's Pentecostal babe, there are many interpretations to what God says." He shrugs with a devilish smile.
"Unfortunately my table is glass."
"That's ok, he writes right with crooked lines or something." He shrugs, straight-faced. "It could be a countertop too, or something with extra padding like a couch or a bed…"
I drop the tissue and sit down on his lap. He immediately wraps his arms around my waist.
"We're definitely going to hell." I say.
"As long as there's a ramp…"
I plant a kiss on his mouth and slip my tongue in. "You're goddamn impossible."
"I had a tube down my throat last time I heard that." I freeze. Shit. Ben pulls back, giving me the most earnest look I've ever had someone give me. "You'll never ask, so I'll tell you."
"Come sit with me." Ben begs me for the millionth time.
"I gotta make use of this cleaning spur." I tell him.
He's transferred into the couch and has the TV on a true crime show while I obsessively tidy up my place; it's like I turned into Mom. Ben somehow fills me with endless energy; I feel happy and proactive, bubbly and giggly, I could even finish that weird clay sculpture in my bathroom and furiously weave the rest of the macrame hanging on the wall.
"Then at least wear something more... revealing."
I roll my eyes and show him my tongue, but feel strangely inclined to comply. I finish spraying water on the last of my plants and finally settle next to him, sighing deeply.
I draw my knees to my chest and rest my head on his shoulder.
It feels weird having a man sitting here.
Nevermind I had sex probably in this exact same spot not too long ago.
But it's different. They don't stay. They don't sit there fully clothed and watch true crime while I shake my ass around and dust my shelves.
I don't make them coffee.
And I suck at making coffee. Or maybe my powder sucks. Ben never has any powder, he always roasts his beans—from a reputable farm in Minas Gerais. I bet he doesn't even buy that industrialized shit they sell at the supermarket. But I'm not picky.
Still, he doesn't complain even when his face contorts as soon as he takes a small sip.
"Are these from your farm?" He asks me.
"C'mon, I bet you have a coffee plant here somewhere."
I swat his shoulder as he laughs, maybe a bit too hard because the content in his small coffee cup spills over his thigh.
His leg jumps as if it has just been burnt—which I guess is the objective truth. But Ben's only reaction is frowning and holding his leg down while it goes haywire even under his grip.
"Shit." He says, surprisingly calm.
"I'm sorry." I jump off the couch, finding a wet piece of cloth inside my bathroom. I press it over the stain, holding it down. "Fuck, let me check that."
"I'm a lot more worried about your couch."
"My couch isn't a paraplgic prone to poor circulation and slow healing."
He rolls his eyes, "That's right, I'm dating a nurse."
I rush away, checking my cabinets. "I have a bunch of first aid here.."
"That's really not necessary." He says again. "Really."
"Ben…" I kneel in front of him with my plastic case. I love using my first-aid kit—I kind of feel more of a nurse than I do at the hospital. He's being unreasonable. "If I had a legal issue, wouldn't you wanna check it? Solve it?"
"You have no legal issues." He takes my hand away from the wet cloth. "I looked. Squeaky clean. Never even disputed a parking ticket."
"Bernardo, let me look." I insist, talking over his attempt to change the conversation.
He winces in defeat, blowing out some air and undoing the buttons of his slacks. "That's really not how I envisioned pulling my pants down for you."
And I finally gotta chuckle at that.
He swings from side to side and pulls the pants down only to his mid thighs. He's wearing black boxers, but I force myself not to look. Like I would with a patient. His thighs are pale compared to the rest of his body, clearly wasted by the years of atrophy—not stick-thin by any means, but definitely a lot leaner than the rest of his body. I could probably wrap my hand around most of it. I touch the bright red spot where I spilled the coffee and press it down for a couple seconds. There's no cushion of fat or muscles and my thumb print doesn't sink down.
"It's not so bad. I'll use some cream." I say, finally looking up at him. His eyes are tightly closed and his jaw set. "Hopefully you won't get any blisters."
He doesn't say anything as I gently apply the ointment, circling the skin until it covers the whole extension. "I'll use some gauze too so that it doesn't rub off in your clothes."
"Whatever you say." He grumbles.
"Can you lower your pants a bit?" I ask.
Ben complies with a sigh, stopping just short of his knees. He really hasn't moved them in years—I don't let that sink in. For a second there, in nurse mode, I almost ask him to lift his leg.
The TV narrator just revealed who the 70s serial killer was all along, surprising a total amount of zero people. I hold Ben's leg up, surprised by the lightness and coolness of it, and wrap the gauze around a lot more carefully than I would with a patient,
"Done." I announce, looking up at his face again. His adam's apple goes up and down. His face is set on marble. "You're good to go."
In silence, repeating the reverse process and now making sure his dress shirt is tucked in, he swings from side to side to get it past his butt and then adjusts his legs by grabbing them under his knee. He does the last buttons and brushes the wrinkles down.
"I knew that was him." He says while I'm still kneeling in front of his knees.
I frown in confusion. "What?"
"The killer. Pretty obvious from the start."
Blinking, I swallow hard and get to my feet. I take the coffee cups back to the kitchen and let the tap water run over my hands for a while.
Feels weird saying that.
When I go back to the living room, Ben is arranging his feet on the footplate.
"Where are you going?" Panic rises up my chest. "You're not sleeping over?"
"No." He shifts. "I didn't bring my stuff, and besides… I can't shower here."
"I could…You could use a chair." I suggest. Shit, I definitely overstepped. I bet he regrets putting a fucking bike rack in the back of his car for me. "Stay."
And I wait for his answer, shifting from one foot to the other.
"I really can't. Even if I used a chair." He finally says, sounding like he regrets it. "But I can stay longer. I was only heading to the bathroom."
I step away from his path and let him wheel through. I had to rearrange a bunch of plants so Ben could move around my place—I crowded the balcony with more greenery and made a mental note to buy more hanging and wall pots; most of my houseplants can't get direct sunlight, and I intend to have Ben around often.
I really do.
I clean the couch with a wipe and hang around the living room in expectation. I check my phone just as it rings—bachan.
I hang up just as Ben leaves the bathroom, and he frowns at my expression.
"Remember when I told you I might need legal help?"
"My grandma gambles." I say. "In an illegal bingo house."
"That was just busted by the police."
"Oh shit." He widens his eyes.
"And she kind of needs an escape driver."
Bachan isn't exactly hard to find. I think she thinks she's blending in by sticking close to the alley, a cap over her white hair and a pair of comically big sunglasses. It's her cover.
Next to me, Ben is stifling a laugh when I point to her.
"This shit is wild, Livia." He tells me with a grin. "Never in a million years I would have imagined…"
"You'd be a flight pilot?"
"Oh no, I've done plenty of that." Ben slowly pulls the car near the alley. "But rescuing your nanna from an illegal bingo bust op… that's a first."
Bingo isn't illegal—gambling away money in casinos is. And grandma… well, she somehow always finds underground gambling houses to supply her… Interests. Thank God she hasn't found out about online poker yet.
I wave at her and she, suspiciously as if I might hand her over to the feds, walks to the car.
"Bachan, get in."
She peeks over me so she can take a look at Ben, who offers her a smile. When she's convinced enough that he isn't an undercover agent, she circles the car and joins us in the backseat. She immediately takes off her sunglasses and cap. I bite my tongue.
"Bachan, this is Ben." I tell her. "Ben, this is Grandma Aiko."
"Nice to meet you, ma'am."
"Hello." She quickly dismisses him, combing her white short hair with her fingers. "They almost got me. Just a little bit longer…"
"I'm sure they didn't."
"Cops really have nothing better to do?! The Red Command runs freely around the city, and they're worried about..." She sounds outraged. "It's just bingo!"
I'm pretty sure she thinks Ben is my uber driver.
"Grandma, Ben is my friend." I say once again, almost choking on the word friend. "He agreed to come and help with your...rescue."
She slowly turns around in her seat to take a look at me, then at Ben. Her thin eyebrows shoot up.
"Oh, that's nice you could come so late. Thank you. " She smiles politely. "Livy honey, it's impolite to carry your bike around like this."
I blink twice and turn my body around in confusion to see what she's talking about. Oh damn. Ben's wheelchair parts are stored right next to grandma, a mess of wheels and frames that definitely look like something else unless you know what they are.
I exchange looks with Ben. He chuckles.
"I…" I feel like the words won't come out.
"It's mine." He says. "You can push it to the side if it's in the way."
And that's the end of it. Grandma lets out a humpf of someone who clearly disapproves of having dirty biking wheels over the seat. Unaware that they aren't for biking. I bite my tongue.
We sit in silence for a moment before grandma switches to Japanese: "Does Anna know you have a boyfriend?"
"He isn't my..." I answer, my chest heavy with anxiety. Then add: "She doesn't."
"She'll throw a tantrum.." She goes on, as if he weren't sitting right there, as if I didn't know that. And she doesn't even know the full picture—the full wheelchair. She only sees the scattered wheels and assumes they're from my bike. "I wonder how poor Leo will feel once he finds out."
"Bachan…" I never dated Leo. I might have fucked him a couple times, which they probably never knew about—but we never dated. That's just wishful thinking.
"But he's handsome." She winks. "I'll give you that."
My cheeks burn.
"Pretty handsome." I agree, still in japanese. Ben briefly shifts his eyes from the street ahead to me, curiously waiting for a translation I won't provide.
We hear once again grandma complain about the State's efficiency when it comes to shutting down tax-free businesses (aka illegal gambling), and finally we park in front of her place.
"You're coming inside for some tea, darling?" She rubs Ben's shoulder in affection. Because offering tea is Bachan's highest form of bonding and affection.
My heart echoes in my ears.
Ben shifts around, holding the seat belt so tight his knuckles go white. It feels like a long time passes while he stares straight into my eyes.
"I'll pass. But thanks." He finally says with a polite smile. My heart breaks a bit at the same time I sigh in relief. "I came straight from work and still gotta drop Liv off."
"You're not sleeping together?" She asks, perhaps not as innocently as she makes it sound.
"Yes." I say. At the same time Ben says "No."
We exchange looks again.
"I still have a busy night ahead." He excuses himself again, a charming grin taking over his features. He'd look good in the family pictures album—where grandma stores pictures of handsome actors from the 50s as if they were family and no one can say otherwise. "Maybe some other day."
Bachan shoots me a knowing look of someone who's been in a relationship for over half a century.
"Of course. Drive safe, then." She tells him, and then points me a finger. "Don't tell your parents about this."
If I did, I'd have to explain how I got us a driver. I'm not about to do that.
"Love you." I blow her a kiss.
"Thank you again for rescuing me." She winks.
"He seems to be good at that." Because I was once a damsel in distress too. I kind of wish I still was; slightly drunk, too frank, and without many choices—not enough that I could screw something up as badly as I have today.
We pull away after she's inside, and it's all silence until we turn around the second corner.
"She's your family's first-generation?" Ben asks me. As if nothing's happened.
"She came as a baby." I say.
"Cool." He grips the steering wheel. "Have you ever been there?"
"Yes." I answer. "It was my fifteenth birthday gift. Then I spent six months in Kyoto with my aunt after I graduated high school."
He nods. We leave the residential streets. "I lived in Tokyo for a while."
"You what?" The seat belt prevents me from turning around with the kind of intensity I want.
"Almost a year. Fantastic accessibility."
"Work." He shrugs, then gives me a look. "They needed someone who could speak Japanese."
My stomach drops all the way down to my feet. I let it bubble inside me, and then I'm laughing before I can stop myself. "No fucking way. You never told me that!"
"You never asked."
I push his shoulder. "Shit, Ben…"
Still, he doesn't ask me who Leo is. I suppose he could have—but he doesn't. Which I think should mean something—but I can't tell what. He drops me off in front of my building, and I pull his collar for a nice, steamy kiss that I kind of hope I can turn into a full make out session. But he isn't as enthusiastic about it, and pulls away before I can climb on his lap and have him take my shirt off.
I want him to come up. I want to snuggle with him in bed all night—I want him to eat me out even if it's on top of my glass table. I want…
I want him to have tea with Bachan.
But he can't. Even after all he's told me today. Even after he let me pull down his pants to act like a fucking nurse when I probably should've just dropped it. Even after he bought a fucking bike rack and put it in his beautiful car just for me.
It's like we took a bunch of steps, and then rolled downhill.
So I call Julia—the physical therapist from the hospital. And the next day I buy a fucking shower chair that I attach to the wall all by myself.
It's just a utility, too.