I kept seeing Toby at the Mission and it was on one of the Saturdays in May when I was finishing up in the office. Theo had been out on vacation for two weeks; I had been running all operations at the Mission on the weekends. I was sitting over some paperwork when it knocked and I called for the person to come in. I was surprised when Toby came rolling into the office.
I sat up straighter in my chair behind the desk, “Toby, hey! What’s up?”
He pushed his rims and with barely any noise his wheelchair smoothly rolled up to the desk.
He smiled at me, “Nothing really.”
I shifted in my chair and smiled at him, “What can I do for you?”
Looking at me curiously, he asked, “I was wondering…what do you do outside of working here and at your regular job?”
I was nervous at the question and cleared my throat.
“Honestly, not much. I’m really boring actually. My life is pretty boring I guess.”
I laughed nervously.
He smiled, “That’s a shame really.”
His expression was curious and his eyes flickered.
“Listen Shay - I’ve been working here enough Saturdays now, I get a feeling that for whatever reason you’re here, it must have been a very special situation that brought you here. I remember you saying something when I first started here. I also can’t help but notice how you look at me sometimes.”
I wanted to disappear. Sweat ran down my back and my stomach cringed at Toby’s keen observation.
He quickly added, “And I just want to let you know, I’ve been around the block in this chair for a few years now and I recognize the way you are around me and that being said, I’m totally cool with it. I came to your office, because I would actually really like to take you out for dinner so we can get to know each other outside of here.”
I pressed my lips together; my heart was pounding quickly inside my chest, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. I was nervous and even a little scared.
Toby’s expression was serious but he asked perceptively, “What brought you here Shay?”
My hands trembled so much that I moved them from the table down to my lap.
My voice was weak when I answered, “Someone I cared for very much used to come here.”
Toby didn’t say anything but looked at me curiously.
I added, “We were together.”
Toby nodded, “I see. Is he still in the picture?”
I shook my head, “No.”
Toby nodded again and was seemingly waiting for more.
My vision was blurry when I stated softly, “He actually…died last year.”
Toby pushed his rims and rolled closer to the table.
His face had a sincere interest to it and his voice was gentle, “I’m very sorry about that Shay. Maybe you could tell me all about him over dinner and I’ll tell you what happened to me and why I’m here.”
A tear now fell out of my eye and dripped onto the table.
I quickly wiped another tear away and lowered my eyes, “I’m sorry.”
Toby’s voice was kind, “It’s all right Shay. How about it? You and I, dinner, your choice?”
I nodded, “I think I would like that a lot.”
Toby smiled, “Cool, that makes me happy. How about tonight?”
I was surprised at his invite to be so soon. I usually stayed at the Mission until eight at night, Toby usually left at six.
For a moment I thought about it and replied, “I guess I could leave early tonight. But I don’t have any change of clothes, I could go home first and…”
Toby didn’t let me finish, “Don’t worry about changing clothes. I won’t change clothes. How about it’s a non-formal dinner date?”
He smiled at me and I managed a low, “Okay.”
Toby suggested, “Why don’t we both get out of here at six and you pick a place you want to eat at?”
I took a deep breath, “Okay, sounds good, I’ll think of a place.”
Our eyes locked.
“I’m really happy about that Shay.”
I managed a shy smile, “Me too.”
Toby looked at the watch on the wall behind my desk, “So, we got about an hour. I’ll come back in here and pick you up.”
“Okay. I’ll be ready.”
Toby spun his wheelchair around and rolled out. As the door closed behind him, I collapsed in my chair and took a deep breath. I was nervous but overjoyed at the prospect of hanging out with Toby. I thought about the things he had said and I was intrigued. He knew something about me and I wondered if it had been that obvious. My heart was beating fast and after this, I couldn’t really focus anymore on the numbers on my screen. I decided to freshen up and get ready.
Toby wheeled in at exactly six just as I closed the computer.
He smiled, “Good, I was hoping you wouldn’t still be on that thing. You strike me as one of those people who always work overtime.”
I got up and smiled, “Yeah, I’m one of those people who don’t have a life.”
Toby laughed, “Well, maybe we need to change that. You shouldn’t only work and not play.”
Toby watched me curiously as I untangled my hair in the back of my head. I had held it up with a clamp and now undid it, letting it fall down over my shoulders. I quickly ran my hand through it to get it somewhat orderly and pushed some strands out of my face. Toby sat there quietly and watched. I shyly lowered my eyes at realizing his gaze on me.
He now remarked, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with your hair down.”
He was right, I never had my hair down at the Mission. I always kept it up in a pony tail or a bun.
I was embarrassed, “I usually don’t have it down when I work here. It’s more practical to have it up.”
He smiled, “It looks very nice…you look very nice Shay.”
I smiled shyly, “Thank you.”
“So, are you ready to go then?”
“Yeah, I’m ready.”
Toby put his hands to his push rims and spun the wheelchair around, rolling to the door. I saw the Ti-Lite Logo on the mid high backrest of his wheelchair. He let me pass by him out of the office and came behind me, closing the door. I locked the door with the key and we headed out the employee exit in the back of building. I had made sure my nightshift volunteer crew knew I was leaving early.
Outside in the alley, Toby turned to me, “So I don’t have a car here but I have a yearly pass for all public transportation and I can bring a guest with me a few times a month.”
I smiled, “I also have a yearly pass and I can also bring a guest with me a few times a month.”
Toby laughed, “Okay, cool. So, I take it, you ride the bus a lot as well?”
“Daily to my regular job in the city.”
He nodded, “Awesome, this city is already slammed with cars every day.”
Toby sat there and asked, “Have you decided where to go eat?”
I had decided on a place in walking distance, “I thought we could go eat at “La Petit Maison”, it’s not far from here. It’s a French style bistro.”
“That sounds perfect. I eat anything.”
I walked beside Toby and I realized he was adjusting his pace to me, pushing his rims slowly and moving his wheelchair adapted to my walking speed. We passed a few homeless people sleeping in doorways. Toby looked over at them with an obvious interest. It was a nice, warm evening in the city. It was still daylight and it felt good to take a stroll. I didn’t get out much anymore but now that summer was sneaking in, it felt good to be outside. I made a mental note that I definitely needed to get out more again. My life had been on hold and confined to mostly inside spaces for way too long.
At the “La Petit Maison” we were lucky to get a table right by the window looking out to the sidewalk. The hostess moved a chair out of the way for Toby and he thanked her as he rolled up to the table, then set his break. I hooked my purse over my chair.
The waitress came, greeted us, introduced herself, and set menus down in front of us. She took our beverage order. I urgently needed some wine.
I was nervous to hang out with Toby in this way. We only saw each other at the Mission on Saturdays and there were usually lots of other people around. I always saw him joke, laugh and sit with co-volunteers and patrons the same. I had watched him help in the store and I had discussed supply issues with him on occasion. We had connected mostly on a professional level there but I had learned bits and pieces about his life. I was very attracted to him. He moved me in all the familiar ways, he triggered the special emotions I felt for a man as he was. He was so different from Jordan though, but from the very start I had been drawn to him just the same. Up until now, I hadn’t been all the way ready though to take our connection to another level.
We ordered our meals and sat there, tapping our glasses. He had beer, I had wine.
After he set his glass down, he looked at me intensely from across the table, “So your job at the Mission…it must be very special and important to you then?”
I stared into the flickering flame of the votive candle in a holder on the table, then looked up at Toby.
He cleared his throat and said, “You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to. I’m sorry if I’m being too direct.”
I nodded and smiled weakly, “It’s all right. It is kind of a big deal I guess.”
Toby’s expression showed an interest and like he genuinely cared, “So that person you mentioned, was that your boyfriend then?”
I nodded with a smile, “Yes, I’m at the Mission because of my boyfriend.”
Toby nodded understanding but didn’t say anything. He was obviously ready to listen for more.
I decided to open up to Toby and started, “Working at the Mission has helped me deal with my grief and becoming accepting of his death. It has distracted me but at the same time it has kept him alive for me because he was one of the people who came there to get a meal or a shower. Being there reminds me of him and who he was. He used to go to the Mission because of its accessibility. He was paraplegic and in a wheelchair from having been shot. He was also homeless and he was an addict. But I loved him more than I had ever loved anyone before. It almost killed me to lose him to an overdose.”
I thought about Jordan and wiped a tear from my cheek.
“He was a good person and he was everything I had longed for in a man but being with him was painful and difficult. I would’ve done everything for him because I wanted him to have a better life. I thought we could have a future together but the drugs took him from me. The drugs had all the power over him. Our relationship was short lived.”
I stopped talking, trying to keep my composure and swallowing the tears that welled up. Toby sat across from me just looking at me. He moved his hand across the table. I didn’t move my hand away when he lay his hand over mine. His hand was warm and strong and the skin was clear, smooth, and healthy. There were no punctures or injections sites.
Toby opened his mouth to speak but I continued before he could say anything, “My life has basically been on hold since he died. I haven’t been out; I haven’t done much with friends. I barely made it to work every day and I hated my job more and more, so I’m starting a new job on July first. I’ve kept myself as busy as I could, because at home by myself, I think of him all the time. I want to move on, I want to have a normal life again, and I want to be happy and carefree again. I’ll never forget him and he’ll always be in my heart but I am open to new things and new people.”
A few tears had run out of my eyes and I looked at Toby. I hoped that I hadn’t shocked him too much.
He softly asked, “What was his name?”
I lost another tear, “His name was Jordan.”
Toby’s hand was still on min.
“I’m sure you meant so much to Jordan.”
I lowered my eyes and nodded, saying softly, “I loved him.”
Toby nodded across the table and I met his questioning eyes.
He stammered, “But you…you are open…I mean, you are open to start a new chapter in your life then?”
I lost another tear and nodded, trying to sound assuring, “Yes, I am.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and added softly, “Maybe I shouldn’t have told you all these things, Toby.”
Toby shook his head, “Shay, no, it’s not a problem. You don’t have to be sorry. I actually really appreciate you telling me about Jordan and how much he meant to you. I’m very sorry that you lost him and I want you to know that I won’t ever have a problem if you need to talk about him or want to tell me things about him. I completely understand that there will always be a spot reserved for Jordan in your heart.”
He paused and took a deep breath, then said softly, “There’s a spot reserved in my heart too for someone I loved.”
I looked up questioning and Toby took another deep breath, “Two years ago I lost my fiancé in a car crash. We were engaged to be married.”
I was stunned to hear this and asked softly, “Is that how you…”
I stopped and met Toby’s eyes.
He shook his head, “No, it was not how I ended up in a wheelchair.”
I was curious at his confession and wiped some slow trailing tears away, ready to hear more.
He continued, “I was a climber. I travelled to places all over the world to climb mountains. It was totally my thing. I had been climbing since I was a kid growing up in Colorado. It was my passion and my sport, I guess. Five years ago, I got hurt when I fell during a climb. It happened here actually, on Mount Rainier. I broke a bunch of bones, including my back, injuring my spinal cord at the T-4. That is why I can’t walk and why I’m in this chair.”
My jaw dropped and I thought of what to say but Toby actually smiled weakly and added, “So no more climbing for me.”
Toby’s hand was still on mine and I asked hesitantly, “But why…why are you at the Mission?”
Toby took a deep breath and laughed softly, “Yeah, it gets worse. I’m there because I’m hoping to find my brother or at least some information about him. He’s an addict and lives on the streets. I think he’s still here in the city and I hope he’s still alive. We both moved up here about six years ago for jobs. I had the job at Amazon lined up and basically started right away. He had a hard time with finding work here. He didn’t have a degree or anything. He had always been dealing with stuff before, like even in Colorado where we grew up. He had already been doing drugs on and off and was smoking weed all the time too. He’s three years older than I. When I got the job offer at Amazon, I brought him here with me because I think if he would have stayed in Denver, he would have gotten into it deeper, like the drugs and all. He stayed with me here. He was also a climber despite his drug problems. He was there when I had my accident and of course he was with me after and made sure everything was taken care of while I went through all of that stuff. I was not working for about a year of course but Amazon kept my job open for me. I was eventually able to go back to work; my job met all the requirements for disabled accessibility. I met my fiancé about two years after my accident but meanwhile my brother couldn’t really find his place. He was the one driving the car with my fiancé in it when they crashed. It was his fault; he had been high. He survived basically unharmed, she died at the scene. Soon after all of that had happened, he just disappeared. One night he left and he never came home and I haven’t seen him since. This was about a year and a half ago.”
I was completely stunned hearing this. I would have never thought that Toby had been dealing with this kind of trauma. He always had a smile on his face, he always seemed upbeat and positive, he had never come to the Mission in a bad mood. Toby’s hand was still on my hand and we looked at each other.
He managed a weak smile, “So yeah, that’s my story pretty much.”
I shook my head in disbelief and lowered my eyes, then looked back up at him, “I’m so sorry Toby. I would have never…” I didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
He pressed his lips together and nodded, explaining, “Yeah, it hasn’t been exactly easy but I’m doing okay, I guess. I still see a counselor regularly. It helps me deal with all of it, you know, grief, anger, regret…all of it. But I try my best to stay positive.”
I looked at him and swallowed the lump in my throat.
Toby took a deep breath explaining further in a factual way, “As for any relationship stuff - I haven’t been with anyone since I lost my fiancé. She was special. I met her on a site for disabled dating. She was an able-bodied woman but stated in her profile that she was looking for a guy in a wheelchair. This was very strange to me at first. I was intrigued though, messaged her and we met up. We clicked right away. Meeting her and being with her was something I had never felt before in my life with any other woman in my climbing days and when I was still walking.”
I had become nervous at what Toby was saying about his fiancé; my heart was racing in my chest.
He said softly, “I feel like there is a certain connection between us too, Shay.”
He lowered his eyes, taking a deep breath, before he asked hesitantly, “I have to ask you – were you with Jordan because he was in a wheelchair?”
I pulled my hand from under Toby’s hand and his eyes scanned over my face and he said quickly, “Shay, I’m sorry if this is stupid or too personal.”
When I looked at him, his face had taken on a worried expression.
He stammered, “I’m sorry Shay…I shouldn’t have asked this.”
I swallowed and cleared my throat before I admitted with a trembling voice, “The wheelchair wasn’t the only thing. It was part of it and maybe the initial attraction but then I fell for him like I had never fallen for anyone before. I was with him because of the person Jordan was. He had pulled me in with such a force on all levels and I couldn’t resist. At first the wheelchair was what it was but then I fell in love with him very quickly.”
Toby seemed relieved across the table and he nodded, “I’m sure Jordan was very happy to have you in his life.”
We were momentarily interrupted by the waitress bringing our meals. Tears had welled up in my eyes at explaining to Toby how I felt. I had lowered my eyes, because I didn’t want him to see the tears. I was embarrassed.
He slid his hand back over the table and lay it open in front of me. I looked from his hand to him and our eyes locked. He nodded and I hesitantly lay my hand in his and he closed his hand around mine.
The tension between Toby and I was enormous; it was a tension of total attraction and deep longing at the same time, making us both aware that there was something that connected us in a very special way.
We looked at each other and I knew that everything we had confided in each other was going to be the start of a fire that would burn so bright. A flame of passion had been ignited. There was this deep longing and also a curiosity and desire, individual to our newly developing relationship. I felt the all familiar powerful pull Toby already had on me with the way he was. My heart beat fast and my body reacted with a trembling yearning for him.
No one could ever compare to what Jordan had been to me and how much he had interrupted my life but Toby had come to me at exactly the right time in my life.
His bright green eyes were fixed on me and he tugged on my hand slightly, stating softly, “It’s a good thing we met Shay. Honestly, I’m very happy about it. I felt it right away the moment I saw you. I hope you feel the same way.”
I looked at him and nodded, “I do feel the same way…I’m happy we met.”
Toby smiled and grabbed his glass and held it out to me and I tapped his glass with my wine glass.
I scanned his face, his green eyes, the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiled, and his dark blonde hair. His eyes had a lively sparkle in them and an aura of strength surrounded him. I felt safe and content around him. Toby radiated a feeling that life was still good and worth it, even when things were hard and tough.
We looked at each other for a few more moments and Toby smiled and said softly, “It’s going to be all right Shay.”
I nodded shyly and he squeezed my hand in assurance before he looked at our plates.
“I guess we should eat before it gets cold.”
I smiled, “I guess so.”
He squeezed my hand once more and let go, grabbing his silverware and I did the same.
We ate in silence for a few moments and only glanced up at each other every so often, smiling.
I still thought about Toby’s story and the things that had happened to him. It seemed unbelievable that he could know how I felt about men in wheelchairs but the fact that he had met his fiancé on a disabled dating site and she had put her interest out there in the open was incredible to me. Knowing that there were possibly other women who felt this way had my mind racing.
As I thought about this, I asked softly, “What was your fiancés name?”
Toby looked up from his plate and kept his eyes on me for a moment before he answered, “Her name was Romy.”
I asked shyly, “Do you miss her?”
Toby smiled, “Every day, just as I’m sure you miss Jordan every day as well. That’s why we’ll keep those spots in our hearts reserved, Shay – but all the rest of the heart space is free again.”
My actual heartbeat raced at his words and I felt a tremendous rush go through me.
Toby’s eyes were still on me and I nodded, “There’s space open in my heart.”
He had a smirk on his face, “Good, same here.”
My heart was pounding so fast as I sat there across from Toby. I couldn’t fully grasp the fact that I was there with him; an attractive man in a wheelchair.
We finished our dinner and even though Toby had told me about his fiancé and I had told him about Jordan we didn’t mention them anymore. We were having only eyes for each other. He kept smiling at me from across the table and he made me feel good. With his upbeat personality he radiated positivity. He joked and he kept touching my hand and sometimes I would just sense his eyes on me, watching me and even though it made me slightly nervous, I felt that he did it because he was happy.
He made me laugh and I was relaxed around him like I hadn’t been in a long time. I was amazed at his positive nature considering the hardships he had been through. We talked about the Mission and he told me about his job at Amazon. I told him about my job at Emerald City Bank and my new upcoming job with the Low-Income Housing Institute of Seattle.
After dinner, just as I was going to pull out my wallet, Toby was surprised at my attempt to pay and he pushed my hand with my wallet away, “Shay, I got it!”
I hadn’t experienced this in a long time but it felt good.
Soon we were on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and I wasn’t sure how to act really. Even though we had connected, I was still nervous.
Toby was parked with his wheelchair under the canopy of the building and asked, “Would you like to come to my place for a night cap?”
I looked down to my shoes like a little, shy girl.
When I didn’t answer right away, Toby smiled, “Unless you want to go home. Then I’ll take you back to the Mission where your car is. I can take a bus from there.”
I didn’t say anything for a moment and I looked down at my feet, thinking about his offer. Toby was amazing, I was drawn to him with an enormous force. I had a feeling if I would go home with him, I wouldn’t be sleeping in my bed that night. I was very nervous at that outlook but at the same time, I could barely resist the pull he had on me.
I looked up at him and he just sat there and smirked at me, “What stops you, Shay?”
I smiled shyly, “I don’t know.”
He nodded at me, “Why don’t you come here for a moment?”
I didn’t know what he meant but then he patted his thighs and looked at me with a smile, “Come down here Shay.”
I swallowed a huge lump in my throat as I remembered the last time I had been in this position. It had been with Jordan at my place.
Toby stretched his hand out to me. With the other hand he put on his break and he nodded at me again.
I slowly moved closer and carefully scrambled onto his lap. Instead of standing there like a little, shy girl, I now sat there like a little, shy girl on Santa’s lap at the mall. My body was charged and I wondered if Toby could actually feel the vibrations racing through me like an electric current.
He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me up a bit, “There…”
I had my eyes down still and he said softly, “Shay, you can look at me.”
I moved my eyes up to him, he had those beautiful green eyes and he said softly, “I know it’s weird but I got you. You’re safe with me. Just come to my place for a drink, that’s all. Nothing has to happen; I just don’t want to let you go yet. I’m very happy about tonight. We can take this as slow or as fast as you want but I do want to take it either way, slow, fast, any pace you choose, okay. It seems we both got a lot of stuff to work through but I’m tired of being alone and I think it’s time for you to come out of that tower you’ve locked yourself up in.”
I smiled with my lips pressed together and he laughed softly, running his hand over my hair, “Yes, I’m talking fairy tale stuff, tower, princess, you know, you get the gist, don’t you?”
I laughed and he ran his hand down my hair, “And I may not be on a white horse coming to your rescue but I think what I’m riding on is a lot cooler.”
He still laughed and I now took a deep breath and smiled at him, saying softly, “It’s not only cooler, it’s also a lot hotter.”
He grinned with a nod and tipped my head with his finger, “There you go. I know it’s in there. I was hoping the lap thing would work.”
I took his hand and put it on my heart, “And in here.”
He now turned serious and his face had a warm expression, “Good, I like to hear that. Lots of space left in here as well.”
He now placed my hand on his heart. His other hand was still running through my hair and we were looking at each other, scanning over our faces and smiling.
My body was trembling from excitement and nervousness. I was so happy with Toby. His eyes were bright even in only the street lights, his expression gentle, his voice assuring and strong.
He moved his hand from my hair to my face and stroked over my cheek while he was scanning over my face. I lowered my eyes for a moment and tried to breathe normal.
His hand was on the back of my head. My heart was racing and he smiled at me as his eyes were fixated on my face and my lips.
He pulled me to him and right before we kissed, he said with a serious expression “Shay, I promise, I got you.”
I smiled and moved face to his, letting my lips touch his and letting the kiss happen. My empty heart space was filling and overflowing with joy, something I hadn’t felt in a long time.
His kiss was strong and assertive. I felt his legs under my thighs and I held on to his neck as he held me to him with his hands around my waist. A shiver raced through me at feeling the rims of his wheelchair touching my legs as I sat awkwardly on his lap. My thoughts ran wild at thinking about the way Toby was, a man exactly the way I liked and for the second time in my life, a man with the power to bring me to my knees but also with the power to raise me to exhilarating heights of longing.
The kiss sealed it; I was going home with Toby.