People look—all the time. They glance over once then twice, until they're staring; when Ben assembles his chair next to the car, when he transfers and wheels inside. Especially, they stare while we wait in line.
"Sir." A man standing behind us taps his shoulder. Ben looks around and angles his chair a bit. "You can use the preferential line."
The man, the balding-and-won't-admit-it kind, points to the small line to the side, for the elderly, pregnant and disabled.
"I'm good." Ben shakes it off with a shrug and moves his chair back to where it was. The line moves a bit, my leg pressed against the wheel.
"We have places to be." The woman clinging to Balding Dude adds, annoyance puring off her shrieky voice.
The man turns to me. "Take him to the other line, please."
I feel my blood boiling and Ben, despite looking cool and unaffected, grips his pushing rims tightly. I bite back my tongue—he knows how to deal with it.
"We have places to be too." He says, calm and composed.
The couple huffs and sighs, the woman crosses her arms and her face contorts in displeasure.
"Fucking gimp." The man mutters under his breath to his wife, loud enough that we can hear it. "They get a fucking line already, why crowd our-"
"If you're so bothered, sir…" I spin around on my heels. Ben holds my hand back with a tug, but I ignore it. "Why don't you head over to the preferential line? Pregnancy is included too, look."
I point to the sign. The blue wheelchair symbol right next to the elderly and pregnant ones.
"I'm not pregnant." She gasps.
"Oh. Maybe over 60, then?" I shoot them an apologetic smile and shrug. "Just a suggestion."
Ben grips my hand tighter. The line moves again and he pushes forward. I feel pissed, but also vindicated. He shakes his head at me, smiling, but doesn't say a word. The baffled couple behind us don't, either. Soon it's our turn and he buys our tickets as quickly as anyone else, including the Annoying Couple—they can't seem to decide on a movie even though they had the entire time waiting in line to think about it.
"I guess they were just too focused on being ableist assholes." I sneer when we walk past them, hoping that they hear me.
We don't stick around to find out. There's still almost an hour to go before the movie starts, we head to the food court tables and I pull away a chair so he can park next to me.
"Fucking assholes." I say once I'm sitting down. I like it that we're eye level now, it's easier to grasp what he's thinking than when I'm looking down.
He rests his elbows on the table and rolls his shoulders with a grunt.
"Yeah. But…" Ben takes my hand, coffee brown eyes on me. "Don't go around picking fights with people you don't know."
"I wasn't picking up a fight."
I kind of was.
"I know—you were being a good paladin. It's cute." He touches my chin with a finger, his eyes wrinkling adorably in the corners. "But you never know who's gonna take it way too seriously."
"Yeah, I'd like to see him try anything." I let out a snort.
"You wouldn't." His tone is all of a sudden way too serious. Maybe I'm just imagining it. "Trust me."
But I'm definitely not. I lean my face on his hand. "Ben, I wasn't really going to-"
"I'll take a punch for you anytime, Liv." He smiles, but the way I can tell it with Ben that it's not a real smile is the way his eyes, usually so expressive by themselves, won't follow. That's how I know. "But let's avoid that, ok?"
"Can you take the bags?" I ask him as I reach over the counter.
Ben makes a face. We don't wanna risk the popcorn bags; as it is, we pay a lot more for the popcorn than the ticket itself. So we make it count.
"We should've picked the bucket." He says. "It's a lot more stable on my lap."
"It's fine." I brush it off, nestling the large popcorn bags with both my arms like they're my twin babies—I'm sure they cost just as much in the black market. "Take the soda. Can you manage that?"
He takes both cups, filled to the brim, and places them between his thighs. He still looks unsure.
"Will you still like me if I spill it and it looks like I peed myself?" He jokes.
I'd still like him if he did pee himself. The thought hits me like a punch. Of course I would. But I don't say it. I chuckle and shake my head like he just popped a good joke.
"I'm not sure if I'd still like you if I had to watch two hours of a shitty action movie with a dry mouth."
"It's not shitty, ok?" He slowly backs out his wheels. "It's Bruce Willis."
"At least he's hot."
I still have the vague feeling that this would have been much easier if he'd told me to just push him while he held all of our stuff. But he's not a supermarket cart, and I'm not about to suggest that.
We find our dimly lit theater room, and as we walk inside the red carpeted floor, we find another issue.
"You should take our stuff to the seats and come back." Ben tells me, eying the steep ramp. "I'll totally spill this."
I press my lips together and nod. "I'll be right back."
I rush down the ramp holding the popcorn bags and head to where we bought the seats. I set the popcorn down and brush my hands against my clothes.
"Livia?" Someone taps my shoulder. I turn around, for a split second thinking it's Ben, but see a different familiar face.
"Leo." I blink in surprise.
"I didn't know you were-" He smiles. "Well."
"Yeah. Me neither."
Awkward. He shifts.
"I'm here with my friends." He waves at a small crowd up in the middle aisles. I squint, and freeze—is that Tib? No. Relief washes over me. "Why don't you join us?"
I eye the stadium seats high up in the room, far away by several steps, and the wheelchair sign where Ben is supposed to park his chair. I shake my head.
"I'm- here with someone." This time I look at the entrance. Leo tries to follow my look, but can't see Ben.
"These are the crappiest seats in the entire theater." He's joking, but it still stings. Of course they're the crappiest seats in the entire theater—and they're the only ones we can have.
Anger bubbles up inside my chest—not at Leo. But at the inevitability of the situation. At the world for not thinking that perhaps we'd like to choose where to sit, too.
"Yeah, well." I shoot him a phony smile and a shrug. "We're good."
"Either way." He scratches his head, his dark eyes darting around the room. "Well, the more the merrier. We'll have some beers at Elisa's later. You should come."
I consider it—without actually considering it at all. First of all there's Tib. Then, there will definitely be stairs.
"We'll see." Which is just another way of saying no.
Leo drops the ball with a nod and heads over to his friends. Still numb in my feet, I guiltily walk over to the entrance, where Ben is still waiting. He smiles when he sees me and winks, not even curious as to why I took so long. My heart melts a bit. I take the sodas and he takes over his pushing rims, popping a small wheelie and going down the ramp with his front wheels off the ground.
I walk a step behind him, and watch as he positions his chair over the blue handicapped symbol on the floor.
"Are you transferring?" I ask.
Ben narrows his eyes and tilts his head a bit, looking at me and then at the seat, like an important choice is about to be made. I wish I could read his mind.
"Yeah," he decides.
He angles his chair as I place the sodas in the cupholders and take the popcorn bag off his seat. Then he places his fist on the cushion and the chair, and does a transfer that seems complicated by the seats' armrests in the way. He untangles his legs and shifts around until he's settled. I place the bag on his lap.
Ben shoots me a look and smiles. "Sorry."
He shakes his head.
"Going out with me is kind of a hassle." Then he gets the perfect opportunity to look away, right as they dim the lights and the trailers start.
My heart shrinks and my throat closes.
"It's not you." I say, reaching over the armrest and taking his hand. "It's everywhere else."
And still, I can't stop thinking.
Hours later, the credits roll out and I lift my head off Ben's shoulder. They turn the lights back on and the silence is filled with chatter and the sound of people getting off their seats and heading to the exit. I stay put, waiting for Ben's cue. After our row is mostly cleared, he reaches for his chair, parked over the blue sign next to our seats, and pulls it closer, aligning the front wheels with his white Chucks. Ben scoots to the edge of the seat.
"Oh, c'mon." I'm watching the entire process when I hear a woman whine behind us. "Not this again."
I glance over my shoulder—Annoying Couple is standing there like two fucking assholes, arms crossed and impatiently tapping their feet.
"Couldn't have stayed in the goddamn chair?" The husband grumbles. Like we can't hear them. "It's already a seat."
I feel like a vein is gonna pop in my forehead. Ben's eyes are lowered to the wheelchair as he's either ignoring them or focusing on the transfer. I bite my tongue—don't fight back. Don't pick up fights. You never know who-
"So rude." The wife agrees. "I don't know why they let-"
Crips go out in the sun?
"Excuse me?" I spin around, digging my nails into my palms. "Do you have a problem?"
"Damn right we do." The man stuffs his chest. "He's holding the entire line back."
I glance over his shoulder—no he isn't. The line is mostly gone. Most of the ones left are still sitting. And regardless, they could have simply walked around.
"Why don't you go around?" I throw my hands up in the air.
"This is a fire hazard." He argues, pointing at the wheelchair like… My eyes find Ben's and they're unreadable. "He should have stayed in it."
"He paid for a seat, not aisle space."
"I'm fucking done already." Ben drops into the cushion with a loud thud, his jaw set. "Over. Pronto. Can you quit being a pain in the ass, now?"
He maneuvers his chair briskly, maybe even angrily. I swing my purse over my shoulder and follow Ben close behind; his pushes are strong and I have to speed so I can keep up with him. We rush to the exit, but there's a security guy there telling us we should leave through the entrance—because there are a bunch of stairs over there. I'm so full of it.
Just as we turn around, I see Leo and his group of friends walking in my direction. He gives me a little wave and I have to stop.
"Cool movie, huh?"
I nod. I don't wanna admit that I dozed off through a good portion of it on Ben's shoulder. He probably has a drool stain in his shirt.
"We're heading to Elisa's now, if you wanna join us… Tib is meeting us there." Ben backs his chair and stops right next to me. Leo's eyes lower down to him. "Hey man."
My breath gets caught.
"Leo." He extends his hand and Ben shakes it. I can't tell if they're having a pissing contest or not. "I'm a friend."
"This is Ben." I almost trip over my words. "We're-"
"Friends." Ben cuts me with a sardonic grin, giving me a look. "Really good friends."
Blood rushes to my face and I grip the purse strap across my chest tighter. I'm sure Leo can draw his own conclusions, but Ben does sound like he's having a chip on his shoulder about the Friend thing.
And it all started with grandma that day.
"Well, if you guys still wanna come…"
The pictures in my head immediately dart over to the fact that Elisa's place probably isn't accessible. We'd get there and face about a million stairs and a bathroom that doesn't fit him inside. I predict him getting more and more frustrated with this day, feeling like the hassle I assured him he wasn't. And there's also Tiberius. Shit.
Ben is watching me in challenge. C'mon, let's go.
I clear my throat after having my silent battle and manage to free my eyes off of his'.
"Maybe some other time." I say apologetically to Leo. Does Ben look disappointed? I slide my hand down the strap and place it over his shoulder. "We already had some boyfriend and girlfriend stuff planned."
"Bruce Willis is looking old."
"He's been looking old since the 2000s, where have you been?"
"That's the last Bruce Willis movie you've seen?" I shrug. "Not even Armageddon?"
I shrug again. Ben shakes his head, incredulous, still staring straight ahead at the street.
This is unbearable.
"I never dated him." I blurt out as we watch the red light.
"Leo!" Ben shoots me a sideways smile. "I never dated him. We've never been on a date. Not one."
It's his turn to shrug. "It's not my business who you've dated or not."
"But grandma made it seem like…" Sigh in frustration. "He's Tiberius' best friend. He's been dating his sister since forever. Our dads are best friends too. Our grandmas. Great grandparents. They came to Brazil together on the same ship."
"The Kasato Maru?"
He's talking about the ship that kickstarted the Japan-Brazil immigration in the first decade of the 20th century. Well over 100 years ago. I'm surprised he even knows about that.
"No, the Kasato only brought the very first immigrants. My mom's side of the family came in it. Grandma, the grandma you met, came after the war."
We sit there in silence for a while. I watch as he operates his hand controls—I wish he'd offer to let me try it. I won't ask.
"That's how I learnt japanese." He tells me. I frown, confused. "The immigrants from Kasato Maru. They worked in the coffee fields for my family."
"Really?" I try not to let my surprise show. Coffee fields. I knew I was talking to old money—but this is coffee money. African slave trade and immigrant exploitation money. "How?"
"We still had some tenants in the 80s, descendants. This old lady in particular, Miriam, her grandkids, great grandkids… I hung around a lot. Theo not so much." The light turns green and he presses the accelerator gently. Theo is his brother. Theo and Barbara. "I got interested in Japan, Japanese culture... I think dad hated it."
"Why?" He never talks about his own family, so I try to only give him gentle cues, curiosity taking the best of me.
He snorts. "Because he's a piece of shit, that's why."
"Oh." This is the most I've heard about them.
"I was never interested in all that. Theo was for a while, but then not so much. I think that pissed him off; both of his male sons, the Monteiros, the heirs to that bloody legacy of a fucking farm-" he's concentrated, and it pours off of him. "Serves his sexism right that Barbara would be the only one to stick close."
"Yeah. She's an expert in animal reproduction, genetic enhancement, blah blah blah." He rolls his eyes. "All that shit dad wanted us to get into. Good-fucking-riddance."
I hum. He drives. I wish the radio was on, if only so we wouldn't have to hear the low hum of the engines and nothing else.
"Just to be clear-" I break the silence again. "Leo. I never dated him…"
"Liv, it doesn't matter."
"...Ever. But we hooked up a couple times. No more than that." I cringe at my own words. For some reason, as if I couldn't afford to lose this train of thought in the same breath, I keep going. "New year's. Carnaval. It's nothing… I don't really like it. The pressure. The sex. Alcohol had to be involved. He's not even my type and-"
"Did you wanna go?" Ben interrupts my blabbering, bringing me to a halt.
I end up swallowing some air. I blink. "Where?"
"Wherever Leo and his friends—and your brother—were going?"
I shrug. "Not really."
"Not really or no you didn't?" His jaw twitches a bit. "Let me rephrase: did you skip that because of me?"
The deliberate pause in his sentence hits me hard. I bite my tongue, looking out the window. I fidget with my purse strap once again.
"Tib's crowd isn't my crowd." I say. "So no, I didn't wanna go."
He senses there's a but, so he asks: "But?"
"But of course I thought about you." I brush my palms against my knees. "About accessibility stuff. Bathroom. Stairs. Doorways. I always do."
He sighs heavily, his hand tightly wrapped around the steering wheel.
"Liv, the last place I've been to that was fully accessible was the SCI ward of the rehab facility." Ben looks almost pleading. "If I never went to places with steps, narrow doorways, small bathrooms, then I'd never go anywhere."
I shrink in my seat. I almost feel like crying, but I bite my tongue and swallow it down. I'm a big girl, and this crying reflex whenever shit gets serious is a pain in the fucking ass.
"I'm sorry." I dig my nails into my palms. "I just-"
"I know. But next time let me make that call." He encouragingly squeezes my hand for a moment before returning it to the controls. "Unless of course you're using your crip card privileges."
I frown while I swallow down that lump in my throat. "My what?"
"It's what you get for dating a cripple. An excuse to skip things." Ben adjusts the rearview mirror. "It's like skipping lines and the great parking."
"And the free seat anywhere."
"Exactly." He grins. "But it also comes with all the shit you just saw today, so there's that."
The stairs. The popcorn bags and the soda cups he couldn't carry himself. The looks. The annoying, hurtful comments.
"I don't mind it."
He snorts, Yeah right. But I don't.
Maybe he's compensating. I can't say, but that's my hunch. Because as soon as we get to his place, he pins me to the leather couch. I let myself slide back against the soft cushions and do nothing short of melting. Ben's demanding mouth pulls back from mine with a bite, and then moves over to my neck—I like this. I like this a lot.
I like it that he's holding me the way he is. Pushing, pressing. It's a reminder that this body is extremely capable, too. I think that's in the back, maybe even the front, of his mind just as much as it is in mine.
Please, get into my pants already.
I don't say it. Instead, I start wriggling out of my shirt. He helps me and unclasps my bra one-handed and it comes free on the first try. He's experienced—you can always tell by how easily they manage to get past the clasp.
I feel bad that I can't give him a big prize for it, that he won't grab a pair of double-Ds, won't cup it in his hand in wonder and grin widely for it. All I have are my A cups. But he still treats them nice, kissing the outsides, his beard causing me to twitch.
"Shirt." I tug at the hem. "Off. Now."
We separate for a moment and I almost complain, but then Ben takes off his shirt the way men do, by pulling it from behind his neck. I could never figure out how to do that, and for some reason it turns me on.
Especially because he looks awesome shirtless.
Like I said, his muscles aren't the shredded, bulky gym kind, and he doesn't have a six pack. He's lean and defined, sure, but I can see it where all his core control vanishes, around the navel line, where his body kind of sags a bit. Honestly, I only see it because I can compare it to the chest area. But we're in a hurry—I don't look much.
Ben guides me until I'm laying down on the couch, and takes some time to untwist himself; he brings his feet up by taking them from under the knee and adjusting it by grabbing the ankles, getting rid of the white Chucks and folding his legs so that he can move freely. Then he surprises me by pulling my legs and dragging me closer with a yelp, and dives in on top of me with a wolfish smile.
His skin feels warm. He's strong and rough and demanding, and that doesn't overwhelm me like it normally would. Like in Judo, I hate being under during sex. The lack of absolute control. But right here, Ben could trap me like in a jiu jitsu demonstration and it would only make me want him more.
Ben looks hungry and dishevelled, his forearms parallel to my torso, one hand covering my breast. He leaves a warm trail of kisses everywhere from my neck all the way down to my hip bones. I grab his hair in anticipation.
"Yes." I say, barely a whisper, when he takes off my denim shorts and throws it somewhere.
He isn't much of a talker. It's like he has a goal set in mind.
I'm relieved, horny, thankful. I've wanted this for so long. Ever since I pictured it to Suzanna, and that night feels like forever ago—because knowing Ben feels like a lifetime thing.
And I feel like exploding, because he's so good with his mouth that he knows not to go for it at once. He's hungry but he's patient. He teases and tortures me, biting the insides of my legs and outsides of my pussy, blowing air and driving me up the walls without even touching. And when he does, he's a miracle fucking worker. I've never come, fully come, out of oral sex. But I do. Three times in a row. I'm almost too tired to move. Ben is tireless.
This wasn't compensating—it was a statement.
I pull him up by grabbing his hair even harder than I'd been doing this entire time and he hisses a bit. He climbs on top of me again.
"Sorry." I say.
"No, I like it." He kisses my lips. His arms are framing my face. He looks so fucking handsome.
I move my nails around his back. The long scar along his spine. "What else do you like?"
He digs his face into my neck. "That." He says. "And making you come."
"I mean it." I push him back until he's looking at me. "What can I do for you?"
"I mean it too." He smiles. "You already did."
I trace the scar, the one across his chest with faded staple marks, a white line under both his pecs. It healed nicely, beautifully even. I gotta appreciate that. They really had to cut him open, didn't they? In a hurry, too. Emergency thoracotomy. We don't get a lot of those, at least not many who survive. I get flashes—an emergency room in Rio over ten years ago saved his life.
I move my finger down to the two much smaller scars to the side. Chest drains. And then move it up to the trach scar. I barely ever see it; his shirts always cover the scar at the base of his neck, which has also healed pretty nicely. I circle it with my finger and feel his body tense up. He skips a breath, but doesn't do a thing. Then I get closer and he grabs my wrist.
"Shit." He swallows hard. "It's sensitive."
"Sensitive good or bad?" I prop myself up one elbow.
He blinks, still staring up at the ceiling. His grip softens a bit.
"I don't know. Depends. Sometimes. I… When I was in the hospital..." he pauses and swallows. "They had to suction my lungs through the tracheostomy. And the whole place was already pretty sensitive, and I'd choke pretty bad. It always felt like drowning."
I wait. I've had to suction plenty of trachs. This first-hand account kind of brings a chill to my spine.
"It's really not a good memory." He sounds almost begging.
I nod, silent. I lay back again against his body and he brings my hand back to his chest. "Ok."
And we just lay there and don't get up until we absolutely have to. Ben transfers to his chair and heads to the bathroom
"You get the door." He hands me his wallet.
We didn't feel like cooking or going out again, so we ordered take out from bed. The future is awesome.
I weigh the wallet in my hand as I pace around the living room, and briefly check inside. It's nice leather, if a bit worn out. I could give him a new one. That's a good gift idea, I should make a note. Then I see his ID; it's in a different layout than mine,. There's a small wheelchair symbol at the top, and his ICD number, G82.2. That's gotta mean paraplegia. I had no idea it would be in the ID, maybe it's just convenient to have that in hand. His birthday is in a couple months—I should make a note about that too.
I hear the doorbell, but the intercom never rang. Maybe it's broken again. I rush to the door, holding the contactless card between my fingers. And then I stand there, blinking in absolute confusion. Because the guy I answered the door to isn't the delivery man.
"You're Theo?" I ask. Of course he's Theo. The only way he'd be anyone else it's if Ben had magically teleported himself outside, and was suddenly able to stand up and walk. I blink.
Again and again.
"Yep." He drops his bags. "And you are…"
He grips my hand tightly. "Liv. Livia. I'm Ben's-"
That chip on my shoulder rips me away from the stupor spell. "Girlfriend."
And he's Ben's twin. Identical twin. Jesus fuck.
"Right." He runs his fingers through his long hair. "And Ben is…"
I step to the side and let him in.
"In the bathroom."
He grabs his bags and walks in with a nod and a smile that doesn't feel quite right. He drops onto the couch, the one where Ben and I…
"I'll wait." Theo declares, crossing his long legs and spreading his arms. Legs he can move.
I wait, too.