Sunday, August 1, 2021

Lobster with a straw - Chapter 1

Some people have the gift to make an entire hall fall silent.

I’m proud to say I can do the same. Only Im none of those people you’re probably thinking of.

Of course it would be kind of great if it were my stunning looks that make people stop talking mid-sentence or the beauty of my smile causing them to stare wide-eyed. Sure, I try to keep my appearance as immaculate as possible. Which isn’t easy if you don’t dress yourself in the morning, shave your own face or brush your own hair. And yes, I’ve heard a few times that I have a sunny smile (mostly from women over fifty, though). But no, I don’t think any of that applies here. I’m pretty certain that those rows and rows of mostly middle-aged, gray-faced men in dark, pin-striped suits aren’t turned toward me now in almost perfect silence because of my style in clothing. Neither is it my voice, because I haven’t spoken yet and I don’t really plan to.

Well, there’s no point in pretending I don’t know perfectly well what it is.

For one thing there’s the wheelchair. The powerchair that slowly moves to the front with a distinct humming sound, following the direction in which my right hand nudges the joystick. And yes… then there’s me. The tall and lanky guy in it, with the stiff limbs locked in weird positions, the incessant shaking and trembling of my body and the involuntary grimaces that appear on my face.

Yep, especially that.

It takes me long enough to maneuver the wheelchair closer to the speaker’s table without running it over that a few people in the room start coughing and fidgeting in their seats, clearly uncomfortable. I’d bet most of them wish by now that they had stayed outside after coffee break. Well, too late, gentlemen. Now you’ve got to find a way to get through the next thirty minutes and pretend you’re interested in what I have to say. And no, leaving the room now would probably not be considered appropriate, in case you were wondering.

My aide Romina steps forward and places my twitching right hand from the joystick to the enormous computer mouse that I use.

And here’s the perfect silence again.

Because if it’s not any of that then it’s surely the way I communicate, through a text-to-speech program that reads out loud what I‘ve written to accompany the presentation slides I’ve prepared. The voice from the speakers is a good one, with a perfect articulation I can only dream of, if a little flat and mechanical altogether. All I need to do is advance each slide by pushing my hand down on the computer mouse and then wait for the computer voice to finish its part.

I’m being honest here: it’s fairly easy. I mean, working the computer mouse is not the easiest thing in the world for me personally although probably a two-year-old could do it. But all in all it’s not a heavy task and it gives me the opportunity to study the audience. Provided my neck and head don’t have an altogether different plan and decide that the ceiling is way more interesting. But when I’m not having an absolutely shitty day I usually get to watch the faces of the people in front of me.

And this is when it gets really interesting.

Because it always starts out the same. In the beginning almost half of the audience is still focused on me instead of on the slides. My writhing body strapped into the chair seems to magically attract stares. Seriously, I bet every talk show host would wish for such an effect. There is the open, oblivious stare, paired with a slightly hanging mouth (not so unlike mine, thank you very much). The kind of self-conscious nervous gaze that jumps all over the place, fascinated, from my crossed, trembling legs to my heavily jerking left arm and back to the constantly shifting grimaces on my face. And then there’s the ashamed glimpse out of the corner of the eye and the poorly suppressed panic paired with relief that seems to say “Fuck man, I’m so glad that’s not me.”

That one’s the worst, seriously.

Sometimes people realize I notice them looking and then they get all kinds of flustered. A few at least have the decency to look guilty, while others do their best to pretend they didn’t notice me in the first place.

Well, try to convince someone else.

Only after a certain while, several slides into the presentation, does the picture change. I can see frowns appearing on a few faces and eyebrows lifted in mild surprise. They’re the signs of people slowly catching on. And eventually the dead silence that feels like a wall in front of me crumbles with people leaning in to their neighbors and quiet whispers of disbelief filling the room. It’s always like this. The content of my presentation usually takes a while to seep into brains that were rather preoccupied with staring at me only a second ago. I’m well aware that people simply need a moment to realize that what I’m talking about may be actually interesting to them.

At this time I usually pause a few extra seconds to give everyone the chance to get on board before resuming.

Toward the end of the presentation the room has turned to a state of attentive concentration and every single person watching the slides behind me. Except, the last slide causes a bit of a disruption with the request for yes-and-no questions only and the remark that all other questions will be answered via email. Now everyone is reminded that there’s a reason they just listened to thirty minutes of lifeless recorded words strung together into sentences.

In case they forgot.

I manage to pull my hand back from the computer mouse and settle it on the armrest where it stays, fingers trembling a bit, signaling the end of the talk. The applause that follows is appreciative and I try to look grateful and not move too weirdly (ha!) while all eyes are on me. Everyone knows it’s not over yet and I steel my back, mentally preparing myself for the question round. Not that trying to sit up straighter actually has much impact on the twisted way I’m slumped in my wheelchair.

“On slide 32 you showed Moor's relation applied to your case. Is it right that this can also be seen as a supportive argument for reversal of inhibition?”

I nod, pleasantly surprised. An excellent observation indeed. Obviously, I didn’t go into details because of time constraints but the man with the ridiculous bow-tie and friendly round face is completely right. I try to smile thankfully at him as he sits down again but I don’t think I’m successful.

A red-haired guy gets up and asks while looking at his notes instead of at me: “Would you say that your method is superior to the one presented in a recent study by Heynes?”

My shoulder twitches and my right knee jumps up a bit, undecided. I think I showed plenty of evidence that the method I presented is fairly good, but it certainly depends on the details. I didn’t do direct comparisons with Heynes’ method, which targets a much more specific application, and don’t want to make any statements regarding transferability of our work in this early stage yet.

But of course there’s no time for me to communicate that.

“Wouldn’t this all mean that we’ve been wasting money for years?”

I turn my head on the headrest to look at the man asking the question, a balding guy with a thick mustache who sat in the front row to the right. I pause and then nod, attempting to smile apologetically. This draws a few chuckles from the audience.

The man isn’t finished yet, though. “But won’t conditions change in the future?”

'Slide 44,' I think. Honestly, when you fall asleep during a talk, why would you ask questions afterward? I stare at the man, my left foot rattling against the footrest and my arm jerking outward a few times. The mustache trembles as the guy stares back and when he doesn’t get any other reaction he flushes pink and hurriedly sits down again.

An excellent idea.

A few more reasonable questions follow and I shake my head or nod in answer. Sometimes I kind of gesture to my assistant and she notes down a more complex question for me to answer via email later.

An older guy with a gray suit and cropped hair style gets up from his chair and takes the microphone in hand. “Theodore Hebert.” He doesn’t state his affiliation as if that much should be obvious. I have never met him before in person, but that doesn’t mean anything since I don’t mingle much. His name jogs my memory, though. If I’m not completely mistaken, he was part of the team initially coming up with a solution to the problem I occupied my recent years of research with. He can’t be happy about having competition in his field. I almost feel a little bad for him. Almost.

“What are the limitations of your work?” Hebert asks.

“Please phrase your question as a yes-no question or send an email later,” Romina reminds him.

The guy barely glances at Romina, but his lip twitches in annoyance. “Ah, how very convenient…” he mutters under his breath. Then he goes on as if he hadn’t heard her. “To be honest, I highly doubt that such a simple solution should be enough to solve a year-old problem. I’m sorry to say this but…”

He definitely isn’t sorry, I can tell by the glint in his eyes.

“…maybe you should have tested your hypothesis more thoroughly.”

That’s not really a question at all and the guy’s barely veiled accusation causes murmurs to erupt in the hall. I lift the fingers of my right hand a fraction before Romina can authorize the next question. I wish with all my heart I could engage in a real discussion here, and tell this guy that we are well aware of the limitations of our work, that our results are genuine and our hypothesis well tested, as I have shown during my talk for everyone to see who is willing to understand. But I can’t, not really. I don’t want to leave it like that, though. By now the hall is buzzing with excited chatter, everyone wanting to weigh in with their opinion, and the guy, Hebert, sits down again, smiling smugly at his seat neighbor, obviously pleased with himself.

The technician fixed a microphone to the front of my shirt, although Romina told him it wasn’t necessary. I might as well try to put it to some use.

“E…” My throat is dry from the air-conditioning and the fact that I haven’t attempted to speak for a while. I swallow, which takes some time, and then start again. “E. F. … Schu… macher…” I choke out and the hall falls dead silent again.

The thing is, my articulation really is bad. It’s like my tongue has a life of its own and more often than not my jaw is clamped shut or refusing to close at the appropriate occasion. A mix of all of that is just what is happening right now and although I tried to bring across not much more than a word I didn’t succeed, apparently.

Everyone is staring at me.

“Uh… excuse me?” Hebert’s face is perplexed.

I turn my head to look at Romina, grimacing helplessly, and she translates for me. “Mr. Hallman said: E. F. Schumacher,” she tells the audience. Bless her, she really is gold. She has worked for me for almost four years now and she knows to read me even when I myself wouldn’t understand what comes out of my mouth.

Hebert’s frown stays. “Schumacher?” he repeats.

From the back someone starts reciting the beginning of the famous quote by the statistician and economist: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex…” and somewhere in the audience people chuckle, one or two even applaud a little.

All in all the rest of the question round goes surprisingly well and that’s the end of today’s session. The legs of metal chairs scrape over the floor and chatter soars around me as people stream out of the room. A few brave ones are passing by the speaker’s table and politely congratulate me on my talk. I sit and kind of nod at them and try to give my best smile, which is more or less exactly all I can do on my own. Romina is packing up my laptop and the mouse and handing out my business cards to people whose questions weren’t answered. She hasn’t set up my talker for me to reach yet. Not that most people are patient enough to wait for me to type in a response anyway, which is the reason why I don’t use it in question rounds.

“Will we meet you at dinner tonight?”

I look up to recognize the guy with the bow-tie from the question round. He has a friendly, although slightly anxious smile. Since he’s the only person brave enough to start an actual conversation with me, I have to give him some credit though.

I pause. I’d like to give him a positive answer but the conference dinner is scheduled to last well into the evening. When the mere act of getting into bed involves a hoyer lift, your entire nighttime routine is a bit more excessive than for other people. I’ve spent a night in the hotel room already and it has worked out okay, but my aide and I are both still getting used to the foreign equipment. Everything takes longer than it would normally and even without that it would take forever. Plus I can’t swallow food that hasn’t gone through a blender before and I’m not entirely sure that I want to be spoon-fed right in front of those people that I’ve just painstakingly convinced that I’m more than an object of pity.

The black-haired man is getting visibly flustered when he can’t read a response in my erratic movements, but he’s still smiling. “Is that a no?” He laughs, still nervous.

I try shrugging and my legs go into more severe spasms, lifting up from the footrest.

“Uh… A maybe?” the guy ventures.

I nod, relieved he got that.

“Mr. Hallman?”

I manage to turn my head to the left. A man with a large red face is approaching me from the side, holding pen and paper in one hand while the other is thrust out to me, offering a handshake. “My name is Kent Bonde. I’m thrilled to make your acquaintance.”

Let’s face it: here I am, needing help moving my hand from the joystick of my wheelchair to the table in front of me. How on earth would anyone think that I could shake hands? Sure, I’d really like to be able to since it’s such a frequent social gesture. But if I attempted grabbing that guy’s hand I’d probably end up slapping his arm instead, if I even succeeded in getting anywhere near it. Though, thinking about it, hitting him is maybe not such a bad option.

Instead I force myself to smile until the man, Kent, finally realizes his faux-pas. His arm falls to his side again and he coughs uncomfortably. He hurriedly introduces himself as a reporter of a local magazine and when he doesn’t receive any response to that save for a dizzying wiggle of my head he leaves with a promise to write an email.

Which he probably won’t ever write, but I find that I don’t care at all.

Just then I hear a short chuckle and look up again. A woman is standing in front of me.

And well...

She’s just…

gorgeous.

Just so that you understand: one, her gender alone makes her stand out in the sea of men filing out of the room behind her, two, she’s younger than me by a couple of years and thus much younger than the average person attending this event and three… she apparently wants to talk to me. Which all in all makes her about a hundred times more interesting than most people in the room.

And yes, she’s attractive.

Like… holy shit, she’s so out of my league it’s almost ridiculous. Her long, dark brown hair is held back by a red hairband and flows in waves over her shoulder, her brown eyes are those large, deer-like ones that make you want to marry her on the spot and her nose is cute with freckles that the bit of make-up she’s wearing fails to conceal. Her smile is confident and friendly, and her gaze rests steadily on my face instead of watching one of my restlessly moving limbs, making me instantly like her.

“My name is Lauren Brooks,” she says. Her voice is lively and clear and it sends shivers down my spine. “I totally loved your talk!”

I wonder how I could miss her in the audience before and conclude that she must have sat in the front to the left-hand side of the audience, out of my field of vision.

“Um... I really don’t want to be a bother but if you have time...?” Lauren gestures with the closed laptop she clutches in her hands, which gives me an excuse to take in her entire appearance. She’s wearing a cute short dress, blue with a red ribbon around her waist – maybe a touch too cute for a serious event like this – and matching red pumps.

I must admit: she’s absolutely killing that look.

Where’s Romina? I try to locate my aide but she seems swarmed by people. Shit. Being able to communicate would be freaking awesome right now.

Lauren watches me. She seems a bit hesitant but not uncomfortable, clears her throat and then goes on, taking my silence as approval. “I work in a field related to yours,” she says, “and I was wondering if you’d be willing to have a look at my current project… I think it’s quite interesting but I feel a bit stuck in the moment and I really just hoped you’d maybe have an idea that will help me go on. With you being an absolute expert in this.”

If she goes on like this I fear I’m going to blush, so I nod my head quickly to speed things on.

Lauren puts her laptop on the slightly raised speaker’s table in front of me, opens it and sits on the table’s surface next to it.

It kind of makes sense. There’s no chair since the only one was removed to make space for my wheelchair. So it seems only natural for her to sit on the desk. But I’m not sure if Lauren knows just how far the skirt of her dress has raked up her long thighs as she crossed her legs and that my eyes are almost perfectly on level with her crotch now. I can see the glimpse of her red satin slip for a split second and I quickly try to look somewhere else.

Because I have manners. Some.

Just to land accidentally on her boobs that are bouncing in front of my face as she leans forward over the screen. My cock gives a very distinct twitch in my pants and I stifle a groan.

Fuck.

I need to pull myself together or this is going to be an embarrassing disaster.

Lauren opens a presentation and shows me a few videos and illustrations, continuing to lean over to me, her hair falling forward and a wave of her perfume clouding my senses.

Jesus F… Christ, is this girl entirely oblivious of her effect or is she doing it on purpose?

Well, it’s not like I’m a virgin. But believe me, when you’re like me, dating is no picnic. I’ve had a few brief relationships, with attraction mostly on the intellectual level. But I do have physical needs (in case you were wondering) and in that field it definitely gets hairy. I mean, have you ever tried flirting using a talker? Believe me, the computer voice just sucks at doing sultry. Not to mention that thanks to my condition I’m almost exclusively on the receiving side of pleasure. I wish it were different, but… I have the success rate of a drunken truck driver performing an abdominal surgery blind. I can’t even get myself off most of the time, how do you expect me to master such a fickle thing as a vagina?

I can’t come up with any reason why Lauren would throw her feminine charms into my twitching face and conclude that she’s probably just very, very cute and very, very dumb.

And somehow very intelligent at the same time, as it seems. I don’t immediately recognize the logo of her university on her first slide although I figure from the looks of it that it must be a small one maybe farther south. Nevertheless her results are stunning. It takes only a few minutes for me to see the potential in her work, she’s got a unique angle on the topic and my professional interest soars. As she continues to narrate her thoughts to me, several ideas start to form in my head and without me having to do anything more I can see the entire project gaining shape. Thankfully the distraction also turns my horniness down to a more bearable level.

Because a hard-on when there’s zero you can do about it… sucks. Absolutely no pun intended.

I make a short sound in the back of my throat, causing Lauren to stop. I angle the wheelchair to the side a bit by knocking my hand against the joystick, slipping out of Lauren’s radius of influence at the same time. “Romina? Can I get you for a sec?”

My aide’s name is impossible for me to pronounce right but the vocals I can do and there are few words with the same sequence that it can be confused with. Plus, the ugly sound of my voice itself is unmistakable. I swear, if you’ve heard it once it’ll probably haunt you forever.

Romina turns from where she has spoken to a handful of people loitering behind, notes down something on the pad in her hand and gestures at them in goodbye, smiling in a friendly but definite way. They nod hurriedly and look past her and at me, stunned. Probably they heard me trying to speak a full sentence as well. One of them pulls at the sleeve of the jacket of one of the others, all the while not taking his gaze off me, and another stumbles over his own feet attempting to walk to the exit while staring back at me at the same time.

“Patrick, I’m so sorry, I totally forgot you there for a minute!” Romina apologizes as she approaches quickly, waving the notepad. “There will be hundreds of mails I’m afraid.”

“I’m already looking forward to it,” I say, aiming for dry humor. Oh, how I sometimes wish my voice could drip sarcasm. “You couldn’t have told them that it’s not worth the effort because… let’s see… I’d die soon or something?”

Romina grins and chuckles. We’ve got a good dynamic between us, I think. She’s in fact my favorite aide to bring to events like these, simply because she takes everything in stride and is generally not overly impressed by the entire hubbub that comes with professional conferences. “Talker?” she asks, wiping my chin quickly with a tissue at the same time. Spit? Shit…

I notice Lauren has gone still and stares at us, puzzled.

Of course. To anyone who hasn’t known me for as long as Romina has our conversation must sound quite weird. Speaking is hard for me and very exhausting when I have to concentrate on getting as much right as possible. With Romina I know that she even understands me when I don’t put so much effort into it and so I let my articulation slack when talking to her. Like…. a lot. Which results in utter garbled mess coming out of my mouth if anything at all, while Romina answers just normally. Because somehow she actually understands me. I don’t know how she does it; it’s probably a combination of figuring out the consonants that I can do well and sensing those I usually trash, knowing to tell actual vocals apart from the random sounds I make and filling in the words that I swallowed entirely by whatever fits best based on context. As I told you, she’s amazing.

The only other people with this talent are my parents and my brother. And they’ve had more than thirty years of training.

I smile reassuringly at Lauren while Romina adjusts the screen that is attached to my right armrest and was folded away previously to make it easier for me to reach the laptop mouse on the table.

“I’m going to put the equipment back into the speaker’s room,” Romina says and places my hand on the joystick. “Are you good here?”

I jerk my head into a nod and my aide leaves the room with my laptop and her notes in a bag.

Am I good? I dare to look at Lauren who smiles at me and tucks a strand of her beautiful hair behind her ear. Her long, crossed legs are slightly swinging back and forth under the table, making me all dizzy. She clears her throat and looks at me expectantly.

No, I’m not exactly sure I’m good.

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite stories! Can't wait for the ebook to be published!/Nessy

    ReplyDelete