The wheels of Brad O'Dell's wheelchair cut through the throngs swarming the art walk and crafts fair.
Brad zips through the open-air courtyard's food section, whose hamburger grills and tri-tip barbecues add
to the mid-day high temps, and then through footpaths of popular watering holes, hip boutiques, and retro clothing stores.
A crowd waits outside Brad's chosen restaurant; he looks over his shoulder at the white-canopied event where his assistant minds his art exhibit. He checks his watch and considers lunch from the food court. But the thought of the vendor leaning over the high counter to take his order makes him shiver in humiliation.
To his relief, the restaurant's door is propped open—one less situation requiring assistance. His eyes adjust to the vast room decorated in industrial chic, and he wheels to the hostess station. "Table for one, please."
"Brad, it'll be about fifteen minutes. Is that okay?"
It is, and he wheels himself out of the way and parks next to a potted palm. He detects sidelong
glances from the eclectic crowd: beatnik college-town locals, tattooed, ponytailed bikers, dreadlocked surfers, mohawked teens, preppies and yuppies, they all have lunch dates. And they all have their legs.
A boy of about ten gawks at him indiscreetly, his parents seem oblivious to their son's behavior. Brad looks the other way and notices a woman and a child sitting on a waiting-area bench. The girl—about the same age as the boy—drops her gaze and moves in closer to the woman.
People, kids especially, tend to squirm in his presence. He closes his eyes.
You are not a freak. They just don't know. Remember, your work is in demand. Think of—
"Your table is ready, sir." The hostess is bent over, hands on her knees, close enough to his face that he could kiss her. He can see down her top, and he loses the grip on his motivational thoughts and plummets from the brink from where he internally teeters, to the dark side, the side he actively and purposefully avoids. A few years earlier, she would have been in his league. A bitter, biting mood seeps in; he feels shunned by imaginary women everywhere, how they all assume he can't have sexual relations? Why, if he were being punished by God, does his disability have to be so visible? One that carries such a stigma. He ponders the "whys" as he follows the hostess to a table, to his dismay, in the center of the room. Thanks. Thanks a lot.
He's lost his appetite, a grim reminder that something as simple as cleavage could ruin his whole day, but he eats anyway. He downs the one beer he allows himself and flags his server for the check.
She kneels down, level to his face, a position the hostess would do well in emulating. "Sir, your lunch is taken care of."
"What? By whom?"
She points to a booth across the room. The woman and child. The girl sits facing him. The woman, he has a side view. The girl appears to relay to the woman the transaction between him and the server. The woman hangs her head, shaking it.
"Isn't that just the sweetest gesture?" asks the server. "I wish I could afford to be that charitable." She bounces away, wearing a smile that likely won't fade anytime soon.
Charitable? he thinks, stunned. He's made a life for himself, a name for himself, made the best use of his situation. Worked too hard following his accident to allow anyone to pity him as if he were a common beggar.
Brad's server hands the woman his check. He knows it's expected that he should thank her. Neighboring diners, privy to the loud-mouthed server's comment, have turned their heads at him. He stares at his paint-stained fingernails as if they hold the answer. He doesn't want to look her way, that uppity woman. He figures her for one of those meddlesome, pretentious types with more money than brains. They try to fill their hollow existences by driving their polluting Escalades and Tahoes to Green Peace rallies, or by raising political awareness to the ever-growing homeless population by throwing charity functions at their McMansions, or by exploiting the disabled, all atonement for their pompousness and hypocrisy. And this one wants to buy his lunch.
He decides to defend his honor, tell her what he thinks of her self-righteousness. He glares at her; she still won't look at him. Damn right, she won't. He scrutinizes her clothing; she doesn't dress the part—more thrift store than designer label. Nor does her attire suggest she bought his lunch as a flirtatious come-on, a thought he quickly dismisses.
He won't speak to her until every word is planned, tone measured, won't allow for an error in judgment. Her face is unmade, her camel-colored hair certainly isn't a product of elite salons, not curly or straight, or fancy layers but shoved behind her ears to reveal her self-important Bluetooth earpiece ready to interrupt and take priority over conversations in mid-speak. Her poor kid's an incoming phone call away from disengagement.
She could possibly be from "old money" where assets aren't usually flaunted. Maybe she stumbled out of bed from her beach house and waltzed in here like she owns the place—because she does. Right. Now you're stalling, he thinks to himself. Okay, if it's half true—he argues to himself—what motive would she have for showing off? None, he decides. It has to be pity. The thought tightens his chest muscles and reddens his face. Don't blow, don't blow. Look at the child. Focus.
The child is precious and faintly familiar, the sort of familiar that suggests you don't know them, not in this life, but feel you do. Her face radiates kindness and wisdom; her wide blue eyes sparkle from across the room. A little angel. It's because of her he wheels to their table. "Thank you," he says. "You shouldn't have."
The woman's eyes are watery; she gives him a sheepish smile.
That bitch, touched by her own generosity.
"You're welcome," she manages. "I-I ..." She looks around, clearly in search of the right words, something less offensive than what she's thinking, surely. "I used to do this, but I don't—haven't—in a while."
Not here. Not in front of her child. Be cordial. Just leave. Say good-bye. "Well, thanks again." He shakes her warm, sweaty hand and wheels away and out the door.
She notices him right away: butterscotch-colored hair, eyes to match, pale, freckled face, thirty something—too young for a life sentence to a wheelchair. She hears him ask for a table. She can hear only certain people clearly, never understood why. All other voices transmit like radio static.
Her heart lurches; she holds tight to her daughter. The child looks up at him just then, the source of her mother's anxiety. She reciprocates, moving closer, as if to protect her mother.
In the dining room, they are seated a distance away from the disabled man, but unlike her hearing, her vision is sharp; she can see that he just ordered. It has bothered her that he had asked for a table for one, the way he smiled when he said it, the flutter of his eyelids, the rake of his fingers through his hair were signs of uneasiness about his solo dining. But something else too, a sensation from him she can't articulate. At best, she could label it lonely. Or maybe it's alone, she can't be sure the difference, but the feeling is there. She relates to isolation. She relates to him.
Hearing impaired most her life, she knows a thing or two about loneliness: always there but never included. Communication is the barrier to potential friendships. Groups shun her. Individuals move on, feeling detached. Connection is her deficiency, the missing ingredient for sustenance. The very ingredient she craves. Its absence is curse on her soul, reaping a lifetime of confusion and misunderstanding.
Folks are always eager to assist those in a wheelchair or give aid to a blind person. But ask them to repeat themselves and you've rubbed them wrong, caused some great inconvenience in their lives—time is precious, and those who demand just a little more of it must be avoided. Avoided, she is.
If God were punishing her, why does her disability have to be so invisible, leaving people the impression she is mentally slow, stupid, or aloof? Exposed hearing aids carry their own stigma: DEFECT. Nevertheless, her position is to show 'em, that way they can expect less from The Defect. So less, in fact, it's like she isn't there. A nonentity.
Her lifelong impairment has gone in further decline these past few years, leaving her jobless, unworthy. Her spouse must carry the load, sometimes in ways besides financial. Especially when her depression comes, or the advanced static in her head—the two blur sometimes. Mostly, she puts her bitterness behind her and carries on. Then a trigger as simple as a misheard word reacquaints her to her old foes Humiliation and Disgrace, who arrive like gloomy fog and settle upon her baring their dark souls.
Yes, it is really happening, you are becoming deaf. You will decline. You are a burden.
Disassociation will consume her for days, weeks, sometimes months. She'll think of her daughter, of how much better the child's life would be if she had an able-bodied mother. How easier her husband's life would be to raise his daughter without his pathetic spouse, and she'll sink into despair.
Years back, when she received regular paychecks, she would occasionally see someone in a restaurant whose aura triggered something, a suffering, some ongoing, personal battle of which they saw no end—a kindred spirit—and she would pick up their tab. Usually, it was an elderly person with no one to accompany them. Sometimes a disabled person.
She has the extraordinary ability of a medium; a pain medium. And she felt their pain along with her own, carried it with her. Her only reprieve came from giving—discreetly and anonymously—a gift of kindness. But those generous days are behind her; she can no longer afford compassion.
"You haven't done that in a long time," says the child.
The mother studies her. "What?"
The child, accustomed to hearing her mother say "what," scoots closer and holds her mother's face in her hands so her eyes won't stray from reading her lips. "I think you should buy him lunch."
It's understood who "him" is, and the mother's so moved by her daughter's empathy, her understanding, and even her awareness, that she begins to shed tears of joy. She counts her money and determines how much she'll have after she uses the two-for-one coupon she'd brought, and sighs.
"I don't want to go the zoo," the little girl says, in tune with her mother's hesitation. "Please," the girl begs. "Please, do it."
She waves the server over and explains her plan. But she forgets to tell her it's strictly anonymous—she never wants the person to feel obliged to come over and thank her, or to feel awkward in any way.
"The waitress is pointing us out to him," the girl says.
"Oh, no," cries the mother. "Oh, no." She won't look his way. What will they talk about if he comes over? What if she can't hear him this time? That would be so embarrassing.
"Now he's coming over," she says.
The mother quickly dabs her eyes. Her daughter's light pinch alerts her to look at the man, to read his lips, because he has arrived at their table. She does as she was prodded to do, and he thanks her in some insincere way that indicates she has offended him. Beneath his expression, however, is a hunger that she realizes no free lunch in the world can ever satisfy. He has fed himself fallacies:
You will decline. You are unworthy. You are a burden. His eyes mirror her soul; she sees with sickening clarity his pain isn't just for her to carry, his pain reflects hers, and it steals her breath. She finds her voice I-I only to lose it again. She mutters something else, absently, and reaches out to touch him, which he mistakes for a handshake. And just like that, he leaves.
Brad spots them approaching from the crowd, his heart surges, adrenalin cranks up a notch. He mentally rehearses how he'll approach the subject of her phoniness without disturbing the child. A reporter with whom he is familiar dashes over to say hello. The reporter from The City Rag engages him in conversation while the mother and child are now poring over his paintings.
The reporter's intrusion, though inconvenient at first, is exactly what he needs to convey his message: that he is esteemed, successful, influential, and hardly someone she can use for her personal redemption. Or to pity.
She and her child transfix their gaze on the painting he most reviles. He captured every image of his recurring nightmare onto this untitled piece. To anyone else, it was the typical somber product of his dreams. Reminiscent of Munch, Kirchner, and Picasso, Brad favors the Expressionist style, depicting human angst in vivid colors. Proof you dream in color.
The reporter's discussing Brad's gallery and past interviews. Brad glances at the woman to see if she's listening. It appears not. She leans in closer to his untitled piece and parks her sunglasses on top of her head. He sees now what he had thought was a Bluetooth is a hearing aid. His first thought is disappointment: she missed everything the reporter said. Then the shock of her handicap, his misjudgment, his presumption, jars him into his own momentary deafness. The reporter must've asked him a question, but even after he asks him to repeat it, the screaming inside his head fails to quiet.
He steals a glance at her, hoping from his quivering core that she won't read his shame, know his sin upon her. He finds her still mesmerized, looking as overcome as he is. The child too appears spellbound, but he sees her blink and he exhales, then watches helplessly—he's lost his ability to speak—as the child draws the mother, his kindred spirit, now smiling, away from his exhibit. Soon, the reporter leaves, saying maybe now isn't a good time.
To Brad's relief, his assistant's taking a break and likely won't return to see him in his state of turmoil. He regains composure, wheels himself over to the untitled painting, and sets the brake, not trusting he'll have the willpower to face it. He looks with new eyes at his three humans in abstract: a self-portrait of himself atop floating stairs, a woman with an ear where her heart should be, and a child between them catching their tears with a cup. It was the first one he created after the drunken stair accident that cost him his legs.
Brad remembers his favorite quote by Picasso: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth". How could he have been so delusional? So blind? He looks at the others he painted post accident, most of which depicted eyeless manifestations, his last one titled "Come awake, Come awake" and realizes how much better they are than those he painted while standing. He also realizes what his brush strokes have been trying to tell him all along: The truth.
His now titled piece, Allegory, will remain forever in his personal collection.
©2011 by Tricia Sutton