Two young strangers have shut themselves off from the world.
Can a change of focus help them?
I sat and watched, waiting. It was almost seven. It wouldn’t be long now.
The sun was casting long shadows, but the day was still light enough that only under and behind the full spreading pines and hemlocks was it dark enough that I couldn’t see details. Yet that’s where I was looking, down the hill towards the densest stand of trees, into the dark. I sat, waiting, but knew it wouldn’t be much longer now.
I heard him before I saw him, saw him emerging from the shadow-enhanced darkness of the early evening. First I heard the faint slap slap slap slap of his shoes coming up the hill. I smiled, and waited. Then he came. Head, shoulders, chest, then the rest, climbing over the top of the low hill, breaking out of the shadows, back-lit by the waning sun so I couldn’t make out any details of his face.
He was bare-chested, as he had been all summer. His hairless chest was very light colored. No tan, even though he ran every day. Must be sunblock, I thought. His pale skin would probably burn easily without it. Even this late in the day.
I watched. He was still almost a hundred yards away, just cresting the hill, now on the flat land on top, coming towards my house, the first one after the hill. I sat in the upstairs front window and watched. I thought he was magnificent. He’d run past my window every night about this time for the past month, and I always withdrew slightly as he neared so he wouldn’t see me.
I watched as he came closer, as he drew even with the house, as he passed it, as he ran on. I saw his pale skin, all of it except the small part in the middle covered by his jogging shorts. He had a runner’s build—hard, lean muscles in his arms and legs, lean but well-developed torso, narrow ankles and wrists. I put his age at fifteen or sixteen. I didn’t think he could be older than that, or younger.
He always ran alone. And he always crested the hill right around seven. I made up stories in my head about that. He had a summer job, got off at half past six, then ran before dinner. We were near the end of his run; he saved the hill for that. He lived down the road a piece, and he was running home. Dinner would be almost ready; he could smell it cooking when he opened the door, and he’d shower before eating it, after kissing his mother while she was telling him not to touch her, he was too sweaty, and they both were laughing; she said that every night.
Or, he was a lifeguard at the city pool and had the night shift, seven thirty till closing. He always jogged first to have some quiet time by himself before having to wade into a flock of noisy children out swimming with their families in the warm summer evenings, where they enjoyed the pool as the skies turned dark purple, then black. He’d run, end up at home, shower, put on his Speedo, then ride his bike to the pool, arriving five minutes before his shift would start. He’d joke with the guy coming off shift, then climb up on the elevated chair and sit down. The young girls around the pool would cast covert glances at him, some of them not so covert. He’d pretend to be oblivious to all of them.
Or, he was a rich kid and lived in the biggest house in town. His rich friends, the popular crowd, would spent the day with him, maybe at his house or maybe in town, in the video arcades and mall, maybe going to the bowling alley once or twice a week, seeing the summer movies two or three times each, catching a burger, maybe playing some pickup basketball, together with five or six guys all day, a couple of them unconsciously touching him whenever there was the slightest reason to, and his acting as though he didn’t notice it; his telling them it was dinner time and setting up something for tomorrow, and his best friend of the moment casually draping his arm around him as he said goodbye for the night and then, when everyone was gone, his stripping off, putting on his jock and shorts and shoes and going for a run, happy finally to be by himself. Sometimes one of the others wanted to run with him, but he smiled and joked and demurred and always ran alone. He was the star of the cross-country team at school and was getting ready for the fall. He had things to worry about, secrets, but never talked about them. He didn’t have the right kind of friends for that.
I made up a new story each day. I waited and watched. He’d run past the house, and I’d be in the unlighted room, sitting back from the window so he’d see only a reflection on the glass if he looked my way, which he never did. He looked straight ahead as he ran past, going faster than a jog, slower than a sprint. He never seemed to be straining, his face impassive, but usually there’d be a thin sheen of sweat on his body, more visible when I could see his back with the sun shining off it, the glistening moisture more apparent then. His long, light-brown hair would bounce with each step, and if there was any breeze at all in his face, it would catch at individual strands and fluff them horizontally behind him.
He was gone now. I’d waited till he ran around the curve up ahead that was obscured by an ancient oak tree; this was where I lost him every night. I sighed, then made up tonight’s story for him. I’d decided he’d be an orphan tonight, that he’d lived in two foster homes; he’d had some problems in the first, and he’d changed because of that, becoming reclusive and wary. He was just getting to know the people in the second, and CPS was monitoring the situation closely. He was trying hard to learn to trust adults again, but it was hard, and running was keeping him sane. Or maybe not. Maybe he had a date tonight, his father had given him a $20 bill and smiled at him and he had smiled back, a little cocky, a little furtive, hoping his father had no idea he’d be ditching the girl early.
It was almost seven. Dammit.
“Mom. This is taking too long. I need to get up to my room.”
“Sam, stop it. I have to finish this before I go, and you’re making me late. Hold still.”
“Mom, you can finish it tomorrow. Jeez, don’t make a deal out of this. It doesn’t matter. Just stop already. I need to get to my room.”
“Will you stop?! All right. I’m done. But you’re not going upstairs.”
“You’re not. You’ve been in the house all day. I have to go out for an hour, but I’m putting you on the front porch.” She set down the clippers and pulled the sheet from around me as she was talking, shaking it without regard for the hair that flew every which way, and she pushed me down the front hall that led from the kitchen to the parlor. She stopped and propped open the front door, then pushed me out onto the front porch. My complaining all the way didn’t deter her in the slightest. She was accustomed to my complaints and had learned to ignore most of them.
“Mom, you can’t do this!”
I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her he’d be by any moment now and I couldn’t be sitting here. She’d ask why that mattered, and what could I say then?
“Mom, just take me inside. Please?”
I didn’t like the sound of desperation in my voice, the whiny pleading. But I didn’t want to be here.
“Sorry, Sam, I have to go. I’m late. I’ll be back in an hour. Here’s your book.”
She handed me my current book, Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, leaned over and kissed my cheek, and was gone.
Great. Fucking great. Our porch was a wide one that ran across the front of the old house but didn’t curve around the sides. There was nowhere I could go where I couldn’t be seen. The porch was more or less open. There was a waist-high handrail across its front that was supported every three feet or so by decorative posts, but they didn’t really mask anything on the porch itself. Not really mask anything enough.
We had an old porch swing on one end that creaked when used, and some wrought iron chairs with cushions. We’d sit out there on warm evenings, Mom and I, and if she had friends over, which she seldom did, they’d chat there. It had been a long time since that had happened.
Ever since I’d noticed that he would run past the house around seven every night, I’d found a way to be in my room at that time, waiting for him, then watching him run past, and then making up stories about him. Actually, the stories had come later. I’d just watched him at first. I’d been in my room that first evening, looking through my books for one I wanted to read again, and I’d heard the soft slap slap slap slap sound getting louder, and I’d rolled over to my open window to see what it was, and there he came: up over the hill, his front dark, his face an unknown, the sun stroking his outline from behind, peeking through his hair and arms and legs. I’d watched, and known almost instinctively he was about my age, just by his build, his size, his shape, I’d known. As he’d neared, I’d pulled back from the window some.
He’d gone past, and I’d had a glimpse of his face. He was my age; I’d been right. Regular features, his ears hidden by a mass of unruly, sweaty hair, fair complexion to match the rest of his skin, slender but strong-looking body, long stride, easy deep breaths.
I’d been transfixed. I’d stared after him long after he’d passed. Then I’d found my book, gotten onto the stair lift and gone back downstairs, gotten into my other chair and gone to the parlor to read. I’d had a problem concentrating on the book, even thought it was a favorite. I’d kept seeing him running past the house.
The next day, I’d spent a lot of time in the front of the house. We’d eaten dinner at five thirty as usual, and I’d sort of rushed through it because the kitchen was at the back of the house. Mom had noticed, but I’d made something up. She wasn’t real nosy and it had been easy. Then I’d been back in front, inside of course, and had been thinking drearily that it had been a one-time deal. But, at five after seven, here he’d come again. I’d been downstairs this time, and as he’d came past, I’d again withdrawn enough from the window that I’d been sure I couldn’t be seen.
From then on, I was upstairs in my room, waiting. And every night he came, almost always between five till and five after seven. I could count on him. And I did. I was there, waiting, and he came, and I watched. Then, after only a few days, I began making up stories about him. I won’t talk about the ends of them. They were personal.
I didn’t want to go out on the front porch, but my mother did what she did and paid little attention to my protests. I could have got back inside had I struggled hard enough, but the chair only barely fit through the door and my hands wouldn’t work on the wheel rails and make it through the narrow door. Besides, there was a substantial sill to get over and it just was a real hassle. My imagination was such that I was sure if I tried to get inside, that’s when he’d run past, and I wasn’t going to be in that situation. He’d probably not notice me on the porch anyway. We were a little back from the road, and he never turned to look at the house, and I could sit very still, and I’d be in the shadow.
My heart was beating faster than usual as the clock in the parlor started pealing its soft recognition of the hour. Just as it rang its seventh chime, I heard the first soft slap. I rolled to the corner of the porch farthest from the hill and sat silently and without movement, except for my eyes. I couldn’t keep them still. They scanned the top of the hill. I had a poorer perspective from here than I did from my upstairs window.
It was warm, warmer that it had been, but there was an indecisive breeze blowing. As he crested the hill, the breeze caught his hair momentarily and mussed it, and the sun highlighted it, and it briefly glowed. He was running a little slower today. Perhaps the heat was tiring him more than usual.
I kept my eyes on him as he neared. My new haircut itched, but I didn’t dare reach my hand up to scratch my neck. His eyes were straight ahead, as I’d known they would be. He neared the front of our house, then he was there, and then he was past. It was the same as every night. My heart was racing. That too was the same, although it was racing faster tonight. The slapping sound faded as he moved off, and then he was gone. The road was far enough from the front of our house that there was no chance I could catch a whiff of his sweat, certainly not with the wind taking it towards the hill, not towards me.
The next night Mom pushed me to the porch again. This time I’d asked her to.
I didn’t exactly know why I pulled away from the window every night. I didn’t exactly know why I didn’t want him to see me. I did, but it was complicated. Last night I did and didn’t want him to see me either, but the feeling he might was so exciting that I’d been alive with it all evening after he’d run by, and even my mother had noticed I was not myself, and she didn’t notice much of anything, ever.
I still didn’t want him to see me, but I wanted to again feel what I’d felt last night. The fearful anticipation he might see me, he might stop, he might even come over and talk to me, took my breath away. I didn’t want him to, but, but… he might!
It was just before seven that the slapping reached me. I hid in plain sight in my corner again. He was wearing black shorts tonight. I’d seen blue, white and black. I liked the white ones best. With the sun behind them, I could almost see through them. Well, I imagined I could. Not that there was anything exciting about seeing the outer outlines of his thighs through the edges of the thin fabric, but logic doesn’t apply when you’re sixteen and might be seeing something that’s supposed to be hidden.
He came out of the darker background, as usual. I watched, silent and still, breathing fast. When I could make out his features, his face was stoic, his breathing regular, his stride long and powerful, eating up the road, his eyes fastened before him, noticing nothing but the miles ahead of him.
I watched, transfixed. Then waited for tomorrow.
I was there again the next day. Waiting. Anticipating. Dreading he might look, but wanting him to, too. Mostly waiting.
Seven came and went. I waited. 7:05. 7:10. 7:15. He wasn’t coming. He’d never been this late. 7:20. He hadn’t come. I called my mom and she took me into the house.
I didn’t sleep well. What if he never came again? I made up a story about that, about him going away, and I woke up in the morning feeling unrested and out of sorts. I was unpleasant to my mom and heard about it. She doesn’t let me get away with much. She left for work, kissing me, and I got a book I hadn’t read before.
She came home a little later than usual, but we still had dinner at five thirty. I was already nervous then. Before, I hadn’t had her take me out to the front porch until six thirty. Now, I asked her to take me out at six. She said that was good because she had to go out again.
Waiting can be painful. Just as can wanting too much. All I wanted was to see him run past. But I wanted that so much it hurt. It made me alive, seeing him do that. And thinking about the possibilities of more, a more I didn’t want. But did.
Seven came. He didn’t. Five after. I was sweating. Please, come. Please. Please. Then, slap slap slap slap. I heard it. My heart leapt. It actually leapt. I could feel it in my chest.
I rolled into my corner quickly. It was a little darker tonight. My corner was darker. He wouldn’t see me, but I could watch him. That was enough.
I saw his head first, as always. The sun caught his hair, made a halo of it for the briefest moment, and then his form climbed swiftly until all of him was coming toward me, his head pointing straight down the road. Arms pumping, white skin moist from his efforts, shoes slapping the road, he ran at his sedulous pace.
He ran toward me, and I watched. He reached the front of our house, his stride unchanging. And then, he stopped.
Stopped, his breathing was more obvious, his chest rapidly expanding and contracting, his mouth open to accommodate it. He breathed, his shoulders rising and falling, and he looked at our house. Then he dropped his eyes, only a bit, just marginally, and they were focused on me.
I could barely breathe. I looked back at him, willed him not to see me, sitting in my darkened corner, unmoving, not something that could be seen. I make myself into a vapor, a wraith, a nonentity. He stared at me.
A person has to breathe, so I must have. But I wasn’t conscious of it. I was only conscious of one thing. His eyes. They were my whole consciousness. I looked at his eyes, and they looked back at mine. He was far enough away I couldn’t even see what color those eyes were, but they were focused on mine, and mine were focused on them. Neither of us moved.
Then he shuddered. A small movement, but affecting his entire body. Probably the effect of the negligible wind that was barely ruffling the foxtails that grew randomly by the side of the road; it passed across his naked body and he shuddered. Then he was still, and then he was walking. He’d turned toward our house and now was walking toward it. He was coming up the front walk. His eyes were still on mine.
He walked up to the house, climbed the three porch steps and stood at the top, on the porch, looking across it to the corner where I sat.
I could see him much more clearly now than ever before. He was young, his skin almost glowing with health, ruddy from the run, sweating slightly. His cheeks were slightly flushed, too. He was good-looking. Not handsome, not remarkable, but good-looking. I hadn’t really known that before. His hair was darkened and moist with sweat.
I looked at him without speaking. I didn’t know what to say. My breathing faster than his, even though he was the one who’d been running, and my heart was thudding.
He stood there for a while, his eyes fastened on mine, and then he slowly walked over so he was standing in front of me. He stood there until it felt uncomfortable to me. I should say something. But then, so should he. No, I should. It was my house. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out, so I closed it.
He saw that. He must have seen that. I saw the corner of his mouth sort of wrinkle. I think he almost smiled. Then didn’t for some reason.
He turned around then and looked at the porch. He walked away from me, and my heart sort of tripped, but he wasn’t leaving. He took one of the chairs and brought it back to where I was still attached to my corner. They were heavy chairs, but the weight didn’t seem to bother him. He set it down across from me, then sat down.
Huh? “You know my name?”
He did smile then, but so briefly I would have missed it if I’d blinked. “It’s Sam?”
“Yeah. How did you know, and what’s yours?”
He didn’t answer right away. He turned away from me and looked out at the road, looked at what I could see, sitting here. He saw how the sun was setting, what that was doing to the shadows, how the colors of the grasses and leaves were changing.
Then he looked back at me and said, “Ya Mom.”
That made absolutely no sense at all. My mom took care of me and worked as an accountant in town, doing the books of many small businesses, the ones that didn’t need fulltime accountants. She didn’t make much money at any one job and so had to have a lot of customers to make ends meet. That meant she worked a lot, and didn’t have much of a life other than working and me. So this guy saying, “Your Mom,” was sort of like nonsense; it didn’t make any sense at all.
“What do you mean?”
He didn’t answer. I had a sense of something, but it wasn’t tangible, wasn’t fully formed.
I studied him. He was very calm, all except his eyes, which were difficult to read. He was looking at me as I looked at him. He looked at my face, my body, the chair, at everything there was to see. I am extraordinarily shy about people seeing me. Why I’d let him do this, look at me this way, I don’t know. For it not to bother me, for me not to react to what he was doing with anger or demur, was beyond explaining.
“What’s your name?” I asked again.
He wasn’t done looking me over. He finally stood up and came over to me. He stood right next to me, looking down, then crouched down. He wasn’t looking at me now; it was the chair he was finding interesting.
Now that he was this close, I could smell him. He smelled of sweat and exertion and boy. I tried to breathe deeply without him noticing.
He stood back up, then sat down again.
“Tope,” he said then.
“Huh? Tope? What’s ‘tope’?”
“Tope? I’ve never heard that name before. Is it short for something? Topher? Mephistopheles?”
This was like pulling teeth. I had to think a moment. Then I smiled. “You mean it’s short for something, but neither of those?”
“Yeah.” He looked like he was going to smile, but didn’t. I got the idea it would be hard to get him to really smile.
“So what is it?” I smiled at him, hoping it might induce him to. It didn’t.
He didn’t reply then, but stood up and walked to the other end of the porch and looked out over the rail, then finally turned and walked back.
He sat down and looked at me. I looked back, studying him as thoroughly as he was me. My heart wasn’t racing any more. But I was having feelings I hadn’t had for a while. Feelings I was having a hard time controlling.
Ever since the accident, after a while, I’d refused, absolutely refused, to see anyone. It drove my mother crazy, but I was adamant. When she brought someone over the one time, I threw a fit, and she didn’t try it again.
Why was I letting this boy in? Was I so lonely? I was lonely, no question about that, but this had to be more than that. My withdrawal, my reclusion, was too well established by now. Was it because I’d watched him run? Did that give me a bond with him that was overcoming my absolute refusal to have anyone around me? Had the fact I’d watched him so intently create a bridge between us? Had that made it seem we already knew each other?
I had no idea. I just knew that him being here wasn’t causing me a problem, and that was crazy. It was breaking down every wall I’d built, and I’d built many, and I’d built them thick and strong. I didn’t get it.
But as I said, I’d sensed something. And now I was exploring it, sort of like a dog gnaws on a bone.
He wasn’t going to answer. I thought about that.
“I watch you run,” I said. “I watch you every day. Where were you yesterday?”
He didn’t seem to blink much. He probably did, but the intensity of his gaze at me made me think he didn’t.
I didn’t know if he’d answer, but he did. He said, “I was sick.”
I wasn’t going to say this, but then I did. I didn’t know what would happen if I took risks with him. I wasn’t a risk taker, normally. But I went ahead and said, “I missed you.” Then I rushed on, so maybe he wouldn’t think about that. “You 16?”
“You run for Edison?” Edison was the high school in town.
He nodded again, and again I thought he might smile, but he didn’t.
He nodded, and this time he did smile, but it again was so fast as to be non-existent.
That brought a lag to the conversation. On his part, I thought it was because he didn’t ever seem to say much; on mine because I was thinking.
He stood up, and I frowned. He wasn’t leaving, was he? But no, he stepped over to me again. “This thing move?” he asked.
I was about to say yes, but instead I grinned, and nodded.
He looked at me without smiling back; maybe he didn’t get it. Then he reached across me and grabbed the handles on the back of the chair and pulled me forward, right into him. For a moment, I almost panicked. My face was right in his sweaty stomach. When I was out of the corner enough that he could step behind me, he backed away from me, then walked around behind the chair and took the handles. He pushed me over to the steps. I almost panicked again, but he was very careful.
I remembered how he’d moved the wrought-iron chair so easily, remembered he was strong. I didn’t weigh much, and he was strong and careful. I stopped panicking. He worked me down the steps, and then we both were on the front walk.
Mom and I lived in an old farmhouse that was modernized a bit. It had a front walk that was cement and continued all around the house and continued along the back yard to the barn about a hundred feet in the rear. It also turned at the rear corner of the house and ran along the backside. At the bottom of the front steps was where the walk split, going both ways across the front of the house and forward to the road in front.
When we reached the bottom of the steps, Tope looked both ways, then started pushing me to the right, which was the side of the house where the driveway was. He pushed me to the corner of the house, then turned and we went to the back of the house. He continued, and eventually we worked our way all the way around and were back at the front steps.
Neither of us had said a word all the time we were on our journey.
“Let’s go back up,” I said.
He looked at me, at the chair and at the steps, then turned me around so my back was facing the house and pulled me up and onto the porch. He then twisted me and pushed me back to where I’d first been, but didn’t push me all the way back into the corner.
He sat back down.
“You don’t like to talk a lot, do you?” I asked him, keeping my voice very neutral. I had the idea it would be very easy to chase him away, and I didn’t want to do that.
I looked at him, and he looked back.
“You’re smart, aren’t you? I can see it in your eyes. You look like you know exactly what’s going on. You look intelligent. You’re smart, aren’t you?”
He smiled briefly again, and I thought I saw the beginnings of a blush. It was darker now, further into the night, and harder to see because of it.
“Aha!” I said. “You could have nodded, and you answered instead. Progress.”
A brief flash of fear in his eyes, and I cursed myself. I had to be more careful than that. Teasing and frivolity and taking liberties were for later. Much later, should it ever happen. This was like taming a wild animal. Baby steps. Lots of baby steps.
“Oops. Sorry. Forget I said that. Please.” My voice was apologetic and scared, and he had to have heard that. He was smart, he had to have.
He was simply looking at me again. I felt like a microscope slide must feel, one that had feelings. Ha ha. I tend to drift off like that, thinking odd things. Maybe because I am alone and in my head so much. But he was studying me. I wasn’t used to that, even when I was first in a chair and was still around people. People didn’t study people in wheelchairs. People avoided us. I understood that. I’d read about people like me, people in wheelchairs. I read a lot. Most people are uncomfortable around us. They have an unconscious fear we’re contagious. Or they feel guilty that they can walk and we can’t, and guilt makes them uncomfortable. Or they are afraid they’ll say something that will upset us if they talk to us, and fear makes them angry. And just looking at us makes them realize they could be in a chair sometime, too, and that makes them feel vulnerable, and no one wants to be reminded of their vulnerability. So most people don’t want to be around someone like me. Almost no one wants to really look at me. Tope didn’t seem to have a problem with that at all, which was really unusual. Pretty close to unique.
He was comfortable with me. I could feel it. He was completely at ease, sitting near me, looking at me, and saying almost nothing.
I wanted to get to know him better, but how could I do that if it was so much work getting him to talk to me? Then I wondered something. If I really wanted to get to know him better, might he be feeling the same thing? Might he want to know me better, too, and not know how to go about it any more than I did?
“Do you want to ask me things?”
He didn’t answer right away, but he did eventually. I waited, and he nodded. Eventually.
I had a flash of understanding then, and wondered if it were true. It made sense, and I had heard what he’d said. It had just taken some time for me to assimilate it.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know. I probably know what you want to ask, and I’ll answer. It’s what everyone wants to know, and very few of them have the courage to ask. They’re afraid to ask because they think it’ll hurt my feelings, and they know they’re being nosy. But that isn’t why you’re afraid to ask, is it?”
Again, I saw a momentary flash of fear, but then he sat up a little straighter. “No.” he said. A little louder than he’d spoken before.
I let a little silence grow. I was getting used to it, becoming comfortable with it, and I thought he was the same. After a while, I said, “It’ll take a lot of courage for me to answer what you ask. Just as it’ll take a lot of courage for you to ask. Who’s going to be brave enough?” And I slowly smiled, a real smile. But with a challenge in my eyes.
Then I sat back and waited.
He had the ability to sit and stare at me and keep his thoughts from showing. We learn to read people in their silences. We pick up their nervousness, their confusion, whether they’re uncomfortable, happy, excited, depressed, all sorts of emotions. We read their faces, their body language, their eyes. When he wanted to, Tope kept the lid on all of these tells and it was impossible to peek inside him. He was doing that now.
I didn’t encourage him. I’d said what I’d wanted to say, and now I was questioning myself. I was sure I wanted him here. Talking or not, having him sit on the porch with me was a revelation. I was feeling…well, I was feeling, and I hadn’t been doing that for a long time. My emotions had been repressed to the point of nonexistence. Having him here, allowing him to be here, wanting him here, wow!
I wanted him to talk, but if he did, I’d have to. Scary. I didn’t talk to anyone about important stuff. Of course, by anyone I meant my mom because she was the only one I talked to at all now. I’d pushed everyone else away and had steadfastly refused any company. I understood perfectly why I’d made that decision, but it had taken its toll.
It must have been five minutes that we sat there, looking at each other, looking off into the darkening distance, looking at nothing at all. Then he said, “Maybe I can’t.”
I kind of liked the quiet we’d been having, so instead of just replying, I let a little time pass. Night noises were all we could hear, and out here, away from town, it was crickets and toads and the occasional owl, the occasional bark of a fox, things like that. Comfortable sounds. Usual sounds.
“Maybe you could take the chance and try. I’m crippled too, you know.”
It was dark enough now that I really couldn’t make out any single detail in his face. I wanted to see if the fear was there when I said that, when I guessed that. I thought it probably was. It would have been good to know. If it was, I could go on and reassure him. If it wasn’t, if there was anger there instead, reassurance might be exactly the wrong thing. It might exacerbate his annoyance. He might get up and walk away.
I guess he thought about that, about what I’d said. I was pretty sure the reason he was sitting here like this was he recognized just that, that I was indeed crippled. Too.
When a couple minutes had passed without any more words, I tried again. “Tell me about it. Then you get to ask me questions.” Hah. A little bait.
He got up, and I was sure he was leaving this time. I’d pushed too hard. Maybe he thought that too, but when he reached the steps, he stopped and turned around. Then I thought he was going to speak, but instead he raised his hand to his face making the standard sign of holding a phone receiver to his ear and mouth.
“Phone?” I asked him.
“Inside, in the nook between the parlor and the kitchen. Go ahead. My mom’s not home. The light switch is just to the right of the door as you go in.”
He didn’t react right away, so I knew he was still deciding. Then he turned to the house, opened the screen door and went inside. He was back just a few minutes later. I tried to imagine him holding a phone conversation and decided if he did have one, it would of course be very brief. He came over and sat back down where he’d been sitting before. He’d turned the light on in the parlor when he’d gone inside, and the glare of it out the front window where it fell across the porch had temporarily dimmed my night vision. When he’d come back, he’d turned out the parlor light, but had forgotten about and left on the one in the telephone nook. On the front porch it was reduced to only a suggestion of light, but something of it did manage to fall obliquely across his face where he was seated, and I could now at least see his expressions.
“You asked your parents if you could stay a little longer? You told them where you were?” I probably didn’t need to say all that, but it occurred to me, he might like that. He might like me anticipating what he needed to say and saying it for him, removing his need to talk.
Maybe I was right, but there was no acknowledging smile to confirm it for me. He simply nodded.
Nothing happened. His reluctance to talk, when I thought he wanted to, was more acute than I could understand, though I now had my suspicions. I’d already tried to prime him once. I thought I’d try again.
“My mom will be home sometime. Maybe soon. I don’t know what time it is. But you can do this, if you try. I know you can.”
He moved in his chair. Then he dropped his head so he wasn’t looking at me any more.
“You know?” he asked.
“I can guess.”
“What do you guess?”
I gulped. I hoped I wasn’t wrong. I didn’t want to insult him or create problems that didn’t exist. But, while sitting with him was nice, I wanted more.
“You can talk. I know that. There’s nothing wrong with your voice. But you’re reluctant to speak. I think you have a speech impediment. I’m not sure I know what it is, but, guessing, I think you have trouble with R’s. When I first asked how you knew my name, you said, ‘It’s Sam?’ No one would ask that way. They’d ask, ‘You’re Sam?’ And in most everything you’ve said so far, there were only a couple R’s, and you turned them into A’s. A lot of words have R’s, and you don’t use those words unless you have to. I think the reason you don’t say much is you’re avoiding words you have trouble with. I think they embarrass you, and you’ve stopped talking to people you don’t know so you won’t be embarrassed. Maybe to people you do know, too. I don’t know anything about you. But that’s my guess.”
I saw emotions on his face, then. They were hard to read in the light I had, and he was good at masking them, but even so, some had slipped through. I knew I saw them, even if I couldn’t decipher them. He was definitely feeling more than he could hide.
He simply looked at me and didn’t reply.
I couldn’t take that. “Hey,” I said, some anger slipping through, “no fair! You can’t let me say that and then not respond. Think how that makes me feel. You have to say something. Am I right? Wrong? Are you pissed at me? You’ve got to say something! You can’t leave me hanging. I took a big chance, saying that.”
Even then, it was a full minute before he spoke. When he did, it was only one word. “Stutta’,” he said. He was looking at his lap again.
“You stutter? I haven’t heard that.”
Finally, I got a real smile. He looked up at me, and smiled. It didn’t disappear immediately. All sorts of feelings went through me then, but the major ones were relief and joy. I knew the smile meant he was okay with me. That made me happy. I smiled then, too. Suddenly, we had a bond. Tentative, perhaps momentary, but a bond.
“Only some wuds. I avoid them.”
I wanted to ask what words, but stopped myself. Getting him to talk about this seemed to me to be a breakthrough. It was at least a breakthrough for the two of us. I didn’t want to jeopardize it. If I asked what words, he’d have to say them, or try, and that might be exactly the wrong thing to do, to make him struggle, or embarrass him that way, in front of me.
“I don’t mind,” I said. “I don’t care how you talk. I know you’re smart. You can run like the wind. You’re good looking, and fit and smart, and if you can’t say everything exactly how you’d like to, it just means you’re human, and not perfect. No one is. Some of us, our imperfections are just more obvious, that’s all. Maybe you and I are alike in that way.”
His head stayed up, and his eyes showed more emotion. He didn’t reply right away, and I thought then that if we became friends, if we spent any time together, I’d have to get used to that. No problem, I thought. I was already getting used to it.
“Why’d you stop tonight,” I asked him. “You never even look towards our house when you run by. And I still don’t know how you knew my name.”
“That’s what you said before. But it doesn’t explain anything. What do you mean, ‘My mom?’”
He looked a little upset, maybe frustrated, then, and I knew, I just knew, why. He’d have to explain this, and it would take some real talking. He avoided that when he could, had mastered avoiding that. I was asking him to do something he hated doing.
I rolled myself forward so I was right in front of him, our knees almost touching. I leaned forward and put my hand on his arm. I looked in his eyes. “Take your time. You can do it and I won’t judge you. I won’t think badly of you for however you say what you say. If anything, I’ll be proud that you were able to try in front of me. It means, if you do this, that you know I’m accepting you, warts and all. I hope you’re doing the same for me. My warts are much uglier than yours.”
I smiled to take any sting out of that. He didn’t match my smile this time, just looked at me with concern in his eyes. I stayed there a moment, then rolled back to where I’d been.
He spoke then. “Yoa mom called the high school. Got the coach’s name. Called him. Asked who jogged past this house at seven at night. She descwibed me. Coach asked why she wanted to know, and she told him. Coach told ha my name. She called my mom. They talked. Mom told me to stop hea tonight. That yoa name was Sam.”
My mom did all that? Not possible. My mom barely tolerated me. I whined at her all the time, complained about being stuck in the chair, being crippled. Fussed at her. Fussed at everything. Took out my frustrations on her. It had gotten so we didn’t talk much. I knew she hated me. I took up all her time, she didn’t have any life any more, all because she had to take care of me. I paid her back by being moody and sullen. No way she’d do this for me. No way.
Tope must have seen the tears in my eyes. He came over, crouched down so he was at eye level, and asked, “What’s w’ong?”
He just stayed there. It was embarrassing, tearing up in front of him, so I stopped. Soon, he went back and sat down.
“Oh, I see. Get me crying, then pile it on.” I was making a joke, but it probably didn’t come out that way.
I couldn’t believe it. He was being sarcastic. He wasn’t as delicate as I thought he was.
“Okay, give me your best shot then.” I thought I could answer whatever he wanted to know. I already had an idea what he’d ask. Everyone wanted to know the same things.
“What happened to you?”
One for one, so far. “You have to promise not to laugh.”
He wrinkled his brow. I know, I know, that’s a strange way to start when you’re sitting in a wheelchair and going to explain why. But it seemed reasonable to me.
“Pwomise.” He didn’t smile at all. His eyes were deep.
I sighed. I hated this. “I was at a ballgame. Sitting in the lower deck. Phillies against the Reds. Enjoying the game. Griffey hits a foul ball, about 18 miles high. It drifts back into the stands, staying up there forever. This fan’s sure he can catch it. He reaches up for it, reaches out, and it comes down just barely out in front of him, and he leans a little farther, and he falls out of the upper deck down onto me. Crushes my spine.”
I watched his eyes. No humor at all. Compassion, no humor. No pity. I’d gotten used to pity n the hospital. I hated pity. I didn’t see it here. Okay so far.
“And the sca?”
“Yeah, that too. Smashed my face into the seat back in front of me. Split it wide open down to the bone. They were more worried about my back and so didn’t get the plastic surgeon until quite a while later. It’s just Mom and me, and she can’t afford insurance, so the plastic surgeon at the emergency room did it, and he was both new and not very good.”
“It’s okay. It’s not bad. It’s okay.” I could hear worry in his voice.
“Thanks. I think it’s ugly, but it doesn’t matter. No need to be handsome, not that I ever was anyway, but no need, when you’re in a wheelchair. No one looks at you anyway.”
“No! I mean it.” He reached out and touched me. “It’s not bad. You look good. You do.” There was energy in his eyes now, and feeling in his voice. He didn’t want me to get away with saying what I’d said, feeling what I felt.
I wanted to smile, but it wouldn’t be honest, and I wanted to be honest with him, so I didn’t. Instead, I said, “What’s next?”
He didn’t want to leave that like that, but I tried to give him a look that told him he must, and I think he got it. He sat back a little, then said, “Always?”
“You’re asking if I’ll always be in the chair, if I’ll ever be able to walk again?”
Two for two. “I’ll never walk again. I’ve had to get used to the idea. But you accept it or go crazy. I’ve accepted it.”
Yeah, well, I could say that. So much for true honestly. True honesty can hurt too much.
“How long now, sitting theya, I mean? When did it happen?”
“Two years now.”
He was quiet, thinking about that. I knew what was coming next. I was prepared for it.
“What about sex?”
Wow! Three for three, but that wasn’t the way most people approached it, no way. I looked at him sharply. I didn’t think he was being rude. I just didn’t know why he hadn’t beaten around the bush more. Maybe it was just that this way, there weren’t any R’s. Maybe he’d got so used to framing his speech to avoid R’s that when he figured out how to ask something not using them, he just plowed ahead.
Looking into his face, I could see some hesitancy, some realization. I answered quickly, before he got embarrassed and I lost my nerve.
“I’m horny all the time,” I said, and then regretted it. That was too brash.
“But, can you? Does it, uh, wuk?” he persisted, his question not having been answered.
I got a little smile at that. He was so curious he didn’t stop to frame the question differently. But then I looked into his eyes and didn’t see what I expected. There wasn’t any eagerness there, no avidity to know the dirty details, to be in on a tasty secret. That was really offensive, when someone was simply nosy, with no thought to what they were asking, or whom they were asking it of. To his credit, he wasn’t doing it that way at all.
“Yeah, it works. It works great. Gives me something to do during the day. And night.” I grinned at him, still watching his eyes closely. I hoped I hadn’t gone too far. We didn’t even know each other.
“I’m sawy. I shouldn’t have asked.”
I didn’t answer right away. I wanted to say this right. It was important.
I took the time to figure out how to say what I wanted to say. “Tope, I’m glad you did. People always want to know. They want to know how you got hurt, if it’s permanent, and if you can still have sex. The fact you wanted to know those things simply means you’re normal. But there’s more than that. Most people want to know the last but are afraid to ask. They think they’ll offend me, and they know they’re just being nosy. A lot of them can’t help themselves, however, and when they do ask, I can usually tell that that’s what’s happening. They get a sort of look in their eyes, one that looks kind of like they’re hungry, that they want to be fed. A very few ask it differently. Like you did. They aren’t nosy. They’re curious, but not so much because they want a salacious tidbit. They want to know because they care about me. Me. That’s what I heard in your question, what I saw in your eyes. Compassion for me.”
He didn’t say anything more, and we sat in silence for a while. I was beginning to wonder when my mom would be home. It wasn’t like her to stay away this long. I didn’t think she worried about me, but she definitely felt I was her responsibility. Of course, with what Tope had told me, I might be wrong about her. Maybe she did feel more than that.
I sort of looked down the road then, just wondering, and Tope saw it. “Waiting on yoa mom?”
“Yeah. She’s usually not this late when I’m alone.”
“Yoa not alone.”
“But she doesn’t know that.”
“Yes, she does. She’s at my house.”
“I called. She was theya. She told my mom she’d wait till I got back. Then she’d come back hea.”
This didn’t make sense. “Why would she do that?”
He smiled again. “My mom loves me.”
“What? What’s that got to do with anything?”
It was full night now. Our road wasn’t much of a road. It came out of town and only had a few farms on it before ending at the last one. Farming hadn’t been very successful here and all of the farms had eventually gone belly up and the families had moved away. A builder in town had eventually bought the properties cheap and was slowly renovating the houses to be sold as private residences, much like ours had been, but all the renovation work, what little there was, was being done during the day, and only sporadically at that. At night, there was almost never a car on our road. The only reason there would be was that teens sometimes drove to a deserted property to get some privacy so they could make out. There were two areas overlooking the town’s lake that were more suitable for that purpose, and so we didn’t get many cars. Maybe one every couple of weeks.
We were far enough from town—and it was a small town—that no light from it reached us here. On a cloudy night, when the moon and stars were covered, the blackness here was stunning. Tonight, there was a small, distant moon, but the stars were ubiquitous and beautiful, even though it was a cold beauty.
The crickets had fallen silent, and the toads, and only the occasional rustle of a small animal in the overgrown fields intruded on the quiet.
I’d asked enough questions. I wanted to know more, but trying to rush him was getting tiring, and it seemed like it was his turn to keep things going. I just sat there, and the longer he went without speaking, him knowing I wanted answers and not supplying them, the more I began to pout.
It was on the tip of my tongue, a whine asking ‘Are you going to explain?’ but I held off. I was getting pissed, however.
Finally, finally, he said, “I didn’t tell you evwything.”
“What do you mean?”
“You mean why you don’t talk more?”
“So, are you going to tell me now? And what does that have to do with my mom being at your house, and not coming home?”
He looked at me, then shook his head and looked down at his lap and didn’t say anything.
“Oh no you don’t. You tell me! You can’t get to this point and then stop. It sounds to me that you know something and my mother knows something and your mother knows something and I’ve got my head up my ass. Tell me.”
He looked up, and his face was blank again. “It’s haad.”
I softened my voice. “Please?”
He sank back into his chair. After a pause, he said, his voice also softer, “I…I’ll twy.”
Then he went back to being silent, but I could see the gears turning. He was preparing himself.
“Sam, yoa mom called mine. My mom’s wouied about me. I’m always alone, because of my speech, and otha things. I talk to ha. I tell ha evwything. Since I was a little boy. We talk. No secwets. She’s the only one I can talk to. Until…maybe now.”
He looked down then, but almost immediately looked back up, and I saw challenge in his eyes. I guess he was challenging me to say something. I didn’t. I waited for what else was coming.
When he spoke next, it was with slight breaks and pauses between the sentences and in the middle of some. He seemed to have to think about what he was saying more than most people would. It didn’t bother me, however. I got used to the hesitancy of his speech pattern very quickly.
“Yoa mom told my mom that you waited to see me jog past yoa house evwy night, and wea upset when I missed one night. She said yoa lonely and need someone to talk to. She said waiting on me to come by yoa house was the most excited she’d seen you get since you wea in yoa chaa. She asked, ‘Could I please jog by again; please, could I even stop and talk to you? Please?’ My mom told yoa mom that I didn’t talk to people. Yoa mom asked why, and my mom told ha about my speech. She told yoa mom that I needed someone my age, too. Then, because yoa mom was talking about getting us togetha, my mom told ha I was gay.”
He stopped then. But he didn’t look at me. He looked at his lap. When he continued, he was still looking down.
“Sam, I’m gay. It’s anotha, uh, it’s why I don’t talk much. All the kids tease me anyway, and when I got to high school, some of them stahted to say I sounded like a sissy, that I must be gay. Because of how I talk. That made me upset and my stutta got wuss. And so, I stopped talking, pwetty much to evwyone.”
He stopped to take a breath, and maybe because he needed to see how I was reacting to what he’d said, because he quickly looked up at me, then back down. I sat still, waiting for him to go on. I wasn’t ready for what he said next, though.
“Yoa mom said that wouldn’t mean anything. She said she thought you might be gay, too.”
“WHAT?! My mom said that?! To your mom?! And to you?!” I felt like the world was collapsing around me. The one secret I had in the whole world, and now everyone knew it? My mom was spreading it around town, and she wasn’t even sure about it? She’d never even talked with me about this. I hadn’t talked with her, either, and it was more my place to do that than hers, but I didn’t see the point. I’d never be with anyone anyway. What difference did it make if I was gay or not?
I was steamed, and I ranted, and he sat there, silent and unmoving, and waited. I finally stopped, but hadn’t calmed down. Everything felt out of balance, tipsy. It was like I wasn’t quite sure which way was up, or anything else. Was this how boxers felt after getting hit in the head?
“She didn’t say this to me, Sam. I was listening at the doa. But that’s what she said. She didn’t say you wea gay. She said she thought you might be. She also said it didn’t matta any about me being gay, that you needed a…that you needed someone and so did I, and we both had pwoblems to ovacome, and that I should stop when I was coming past hea tonight and talk to you.
“When she left, she’d said what she’d do. It was all set with my mom. She’d put you on the poach, then go to my house. And wait. She didn’t want to distub us. She wanted us to have all the time we need. She said yoa shy.”
“I’m not shy. And how come you got so talkative all of a sudden?”
He looked shocked, and I broke out laughing. Then he did too, and we laughed together. I guess the tension of the moment needed breaking. That broke it.
When he could talk again, he said, “Sam, I didn’t want to stop tonight. I don’t like to talk to stwangas. But mom told me I had to oa sleep in the baan. We don’t have a baan.”
He giggled then, and said, “I’m glad I got up the couage to talk to you.”
Not too long after that, he said he had to go. He called his mom and she and my mom drove over. I shook hands with his mom. She was pretty, about my mom’s age, and I could see the resemblance between her and her son. And between her and my mom, too. They both had sad eyes.
Tope and his mom left pretty quickly after that.
I could have yelled at my mom. I did that a lot. We were both used to it. She stood on the porch and just looked at me, waiting for a reaction. She’d turned the porch light on when she’d arrived and scolded us for sitting in the dark. She didn’t mean it. I think moms have to scold their children just to keep in practice.
I didn’t yell at her. I called her over, told her to crouch down, then hugged her the best I could. I cried a little, too. I told her how sorry I was for making her life miserable. She cried too then. It was the most affectionate I’d been since the accident. She said I never made her life miserable, and that I was strong to be able to keep going with all I’d been through, and that she loved me totally, unconditionally, always had and always would.
I sat on the porch, waiting. It was nearly seven, and my ears kept fooling me, thinking they could hear a slap slap slap slap from down the road when there wasn’t one there. The sun was behind some clouds tonight, so it wasn’t as bright as usual, but it was still warm.
Then I heard the slapping and saw him come over the hill. Without the backlighting, I could see his face from much farther away this time. He was grinning.
He stopped at the front walk, looked up at the house as though he’d never seen it before, then strode up to the porch, never looking my way. He climbed the steps, went to the door and knocked on it, calling inside, “Is theya anyone home?”
“I’m right here, you dufus.” I was sitting where I’d been last night.
He looked over at me, jumping as if startled by the sound, then grinned, his game almost ended. “Gee, I didn’t even see you. Hiding in the coana again.”
He was teasing me. Okay, I’d give him some of his own then.
“I still haven’t heard you stutter, not even once. Why’d you say you do when you don’t?”
“I do. I can’t say wuds that staat with the letta afta E. Sometimes, even when the sound is in the middle of a wud, I get stuck. That’s why I can’t say my name.”
“What is your name?”
“I can’t say it.”
“Can you spell it?”
“Not the second and last letta. I can’t say them.”
“Are those R’s?”
“Okay, spell it, but use blank for the R’s.”
“I can do that. It’s cee blank eye ess tee oh pee aitch ee blank.”
“Christopher!” I thought for a second. “Tope! I get it.”
“I like Tope,” he said, and smiled, a little bashfully I thought.
“I do, too. But what about—” I stopped, trying to think. “You can’t say the eff sound either? And there is an eff sound in Christopher! But you’ve been talking some to me. And you didn’t stutter at all.”
“I didn’t make that sound you just said, eitha; that’s why. Not once.” He grinned at me, and there was some triumph in it. “I can’t say the wud I want to to you. That’s a haad word. It begins with that letta after E and then it has that otha letter. I can’t say it.”
It only took me a moment. “Friend?” I asked.
He smiled, and nodded.
We both just looked at each other for a few moments, neither of us talking. Our eyes were doing that, though. Then he asked me what I wanted to do.
“I know what I want,” I answered wistfully, after thinking a moment. “I want to feel like you do when you run. You look so strong, so graceful, so alive, when you’re doing that. You look cool, wearing just shorts. I want to feel what you feel.”
There was a pause, and then he said, “That’s easy. Let me have yoa sheut.”
I took it off. And while doing so, I realized something. No one would say it like that. They’d say, ‘Take off your shirt.” He’d said it differently. He’d avoided the F sound. He disguised his R sounds. He avoided F’s completely. No wonder there were pauses before he spoke. No wonder he tried not to speak at all when he didn’t have to. It was so hard for him!
I was already wearing shorts. My legs were thin. My mom exercised them for me, but they were still thin. It was one more thing to be embarrassed about, that I wasn’t letting myself be embarrassed about, with Tope. He’d looked at me the first time we met. Yesterday. I’d let him. He’d looked at my legs, my scar, my chair. All the time he was doing it, it was weird. I hated people looking at me, and he was really looking. But I allowed him to, and that was what was weird. And also, I had the strangest feeling that he wasn’t looking at a boy in a chair and seeing a freak or thinking how sorry he was. I had this weird feeling that he was just seeing me. Not the parts that were wrong. Not the boy stuck in a chair. Me.
With my shirt off and my thin chest exposed to the warm twilight air, Tope rolled me down the front walk and to the road. I glanced back at the house and saw mom standing behind the screen door, watching us, a smile on her face. I couldn’t see her eyes, but saw her raise her hand to them. Or maybe she was just waving at us.
Tope got behind me and started pushing. He was strong. Before too many steps, he was going as fast as he usually did, the same pace, and I was flying with him. The warm breeze played over my skin. I put my arms out and let it completely surround me. I closed my eyes.
Tope must have pushed me more than a mile like that. The road was completely flat, and completely empty. When he finally slowed down, I felt like I’d been on the best amusement park ride ever built. I felt transcendent.
He stopped. He was winded, and panting, but grinning at me.
I looked up at him and said, “I’m gay, too, Tope.”
He looked at me without replying, which I was used to by now. Then he said, “I was hoping you wea.”
As always, my sincere thanks to my editors.
You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.
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