by Brigita Orel
She turned the right wheel awkwardly and the wheelchair bumped into the elevator door. She jerked sideways, but it didn’t help. The stout doorman ran to her help.
“Miss Elsie, why don’t you holler for help?” he said as he nearly lifted the wheelchair with the tiny woman in it and then pushed her out of the elevator and towards the door.
“I’m trying to be independent, George. I keep hoping I’ll learn how to use this darn thing,” she offered him an uneven smile with the right corner of her upper lip immovable and marred with a wide scar.
“Give it time.”
He pushed the chair so she wouldn’t tire her arms too soon. “Going shopping?”
“Today I’ll raid the bookstores,” she announced with a grin.
He stepped in front of her and tucked his right hand between two buttons on his black uniform. He smiled only when he was talking to Elsie because his left eyetooth was missing and she was the kind of woman he knew wouldn’t care about his defect. He tried replacing the tooth, but since his youngest daughter had left her unwanted child with him and his wife to go in search of a better life, he couldn’t afford it with his paycheck.
“You’re hopeless. You work too much.”
“This time I’ll buy only books for pleasure. No work, I promise.”
He smirked and opened the door for her and helped her descend the ramp, holding her chair back so it wouldn’t go out of control with the speed.
“Thank you,” she yelled over her shoulder as she hurried down the sidewalk with a nonchalance even able-bodied people rarely possessed.
“Miss,” someone yelled after her just when she turned to the ramp in front of her building. Elsie was returning from her shopping with two bags of books in the net at the back of her chair. Her fingers were cold from having to push the wheels. She only had her fingerless gloves on because she had forgotten her winter gloves in her apartment and was too embarrassed to ask George to go get them for her.
She stopped. Surprised, she saw a well-dressed man run from behind and stop in front of her.
“Was I jaywalking?” she grinned up at him.
After a stunned silence he handed her a piece of paper, “You dropped this.”
“Thank you.” It was a leaflet she had taken at one of the stores. It must have slipped from the net.
For a long moment he didn’t say anything. He was standing so close to her she would have to wheel backwards and then around him if she wanted to continue her journey.
“Can I help you into the building?”
She hesitated. People usually weren’t helpful without wanting something in return or worse, feeling pity for her condition. She rolled back and forth in her chair and finally nodded.
George offered her an inquisitive look when he saw her enter through the doorway with the help of the stranger. She shrugged slightly and let herself be pushed into the elevator.
The man waited for her to tell him her floor and pressed the button. She was warming her fingers, blowing hot breath in them.
“By the way, my name is Clive,” he stepped to her side. She was grateful he didn’t step in front of her, turning his back to her so she’d have to look at his backside.
“Have you always been in the wheelchair?” he asked quietly.
“Three years. A drunk driver hit me while I was waiting for green light at an intersection.”
“I’m sorry.” She lifted her face to him when she heard real regret in his tone.
“What’s done is done. I’m coping.”
“You live alone? How do you manage?” He leaned onto the back wall of the elevator, standing almost two feet away from it so that his torso was in the same level as her head.
“You learn quickly when you’re forced to. Besides, at least my feet aren’t killing me if I move around the whole day,” she chuckled.
He smiled. “What do you do?”
She pulled the satchel in her lap closer so it wouldn’t slide to the floor as he pushed her out of the elevator.
“I’m a computer programmer. You?”
“I’m a lawyer. Which is your door?” he asked, scanning the numbers on the doors. She pointed towards the one at the end of the hallway. The wheels turned silently on the carpet lining. When he pushed her to a stop, he stepped around the chair and crouched down. He stared at her unblinking. He reached out towards her hand but changed his mind halfway and grabbed the armrest.
“Can I visit you some time?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“I like you.”
She opened her mouth to protest.
“Don’t tell me that’s a bad idea.”
She grinned and shrugged. “Fine, come and see me.”
Moving around outside became more difficult for her as the winter exploded in all its glory two weeks later and dropped a thick layer of snow onto the streets. The good will of people like George wasn’t enough to clear the way for her and she had to order her food in a few times. She became restless when she couldn’t enjoy the fresh air for a few days. She wandered from her desk to the window and watched the odious snow, then wheeled into the kitchen to prepare a cup of tea.
She was interrupted by a knock on the door. When she went to open it, Clive offered her a bunch of flowers.
“Thanks.” She smelled them. “They’re wonderful.”
He brought her a bag of groceries. He put them into cupboards and the fridge following her instructions. After two visits he almost knew his way around the apartment.
“Are you doing this out of pity?” she asked him and smiled when he faced her.
His lips twitched then pressed together before he answered a long moment later. “No.”
She kept staring at his back with her head tilted to the side as he finished preparing the tea she had started brewing. He behaved like he was home, his moves confident, when he got lost he wasn’t afraid to ask.
“Do you want me to clean the window?” he turned to her.
“That would be nice. I hate how it makes the room darker.”
He opened the window and brushed the snow from the window sill with his hand. Afterwards he warmed his fingers in tepid water.
He stayed for an hour.
Pulling his coat on, he asked, “Would you go out with me?”
She raised her eyes to his face. Before a solid thought could form in her head, she said, “That is a bad idea.”
He spread his arms as if asking for an explanation.
“Going out with me is not simple, much less fun. You don’t want to experience that.”
“Have you been on a date since the accident?”
She fixed the quilt over her legs.
“See? You’re just afraid because you’ve never tried.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but then she closed it again without uttering a sound. She told herself she was silent because it was pointless to try and convince Clive she was right. But in the hollow of her stomach she knew she was silent because a part of her wanted desperately to go on a date, wanted him to like her.
“You’re seeing problems where there aren’t any. If you can’t walk that doesn’t mean you can’t go on a date.”
“No, it just means I can’t go to just any restaurant I’d want to, I can’t stand on my toes to give you a goodnight kiss.”
“We’ll fix that,” he grinned and she rolled her eyes at him.
“I’ll call you and let you know the details,” he promised before he left.
He rolled the glass in his long fingers. Their discussion had been lively until the music had filled the restaurant and made it hard to talk without having to yell across the table.
A smile hung at the corners of her lips as if she’d forgotten it there. She leaned back in her chair, away from the table, out of his personal space. A dark quilt was covering her legs in a black skirt.
He looked at her and smiled when he saw her stare.
“Shall we leave? Are you bored?”
She leaned towards him. “No, you can go dance with someone else if you like. I don’t mind.”
He took hold of her hand. “I wanted to spend the evening with you.”
She observed him, but didn’t say anything.
He called the waiter and paid for their dinner and without another word pushed her wheelchair through the noise and toward the entrance. The maitre d’ hurried to open the glass door for them and helped Clive lift the chair over the two steps.
“Thank you,” she smiled and nodded when he wished them a good night.
“Are you cold?”
“So you don’t mind if we walk home?” Even in the deceiving light of the streetlamps she could see him blush.
“It’s okay, we can walk home.”
The air was crisp and it held the familiar whiff of the city sewer and car exhausts. The snow on the sidewalks melted. It was a starry night with full moon. The streets were full of people causing the mellow wave of voices and laughter to resonate in between night traffic. A few yards in front of them a group of spectators poured into the street when the late show ended. Clive had to push her chair onto the street and swerve around them so they could continue on their way.
His silence was telling. They didn’t speak for two more blocks until she reached with her arm over her shoulder and patted his gloved hand.
He stopped the chair and bowed down to her. “Need anything?”
“It shouldn’t bother you, you know. It’s not just tonight, it’s always like this.”
“What? No, I’m not … It just doesn’t seem fair.” He lowered his face, but she could only see his profile since he was standing by her side.
“To be exact, it isn’t fair.” Her voice was cold and sharp. She drew in a long breath. “You have to get used to it.”
“I will get used to it.”
“No, I meant one has to get used to it. Not you, me.” Her lips twitched in a half-smile and she reached for his hand. He entwined his fingers with hers, staring ahead into a place he couldn’t see because it was hidden in darkness and distance.
He unlocked her door and she wheeled the wheelchair inside. She took off her shawl and he helped her take off the coat, hanging it onto the coat-hanger in the hallway.
“No, not there, over this chair, please,” she corrected him. “I can’t reach it that high up.”
He bit his lower lip and did as she asked. Then he placed his jacket over her coat and sat onto a chair facing her. His eyebrows were pulled together when he looked in her eyes.
“I wanted it to be a nice evening.”
“I know. And it was.”
“Was it?” His eyes searched her face. Her cheeks were still flushed from the nippy air.
“For me, yes. Not so much for you.”
He didn’t correct her and he didn’t kiss her good night. He tried pretending he wasn’t leaving for good, but she knew. She always knew.
She undressed slowly, her skin forming goose bumps in the fresh air of her bedroom. She brushed her teeth over the bath tub, which reminded her that after three years she still had to have her sink lowered.
When she lay in bed, she suddenly felt sad for herself and the bunch of wilted violet tulips on the window sill, for Clive and the way he desperately hoped right until the end. Even for George with his missing tooth. And she wept softly for all of them in the dark that was mellowing into the early hours of a new day.