Evan Chambers looked up at the dorm he was assigned to and shook his head. The name of the dorm, Yardley, was engraved in block lettering above the entrance. The entryway was crowded with excited incoming students, dragging suitcases and boxes. Yardley was made of red brick and had a new, polished look, even though Evan had read that the dorm was over a hundred years old. Stretching out before the entrance was a long flight of stairs.
“They’ve got to be kidding,” Evan said, rolling his wheelchair out of the way of the staircase.
Evan’s father Howard put his hand on his son’s shoulder, “Don’t worry…we probably have the wrong dorm. Or maybe there’s a wheelchair entrance here somewhere.”
“We circled the entire dorm,” Evan reminded him. “There’s no other entrance. Dad, how the hell am I going to get in there?”
“Don’t swear, son,” Howard said softly.
Evan looked up at his father, “I knew something like this would happen. If anything can go wrong…”
Howard’s eyes hardened. “Don’t worry about this. This is nothing. Come on, I still remember where the housing office is from my old days here.”
As Evan followed his father across the campus, he wondered if this whole thing was a mistake. He hadn’t wanted to go away to college. He had been fine back home. But then his father had insisted. Evan was depressed at home and didn’t have any friends. Maybe in a campus environment, he would be forced to make friends and become a normal person. It was Howard’s way of saying he was sorry for sticking Evan in a school for the disabled for the four years of high school. That was a bad decision on my part, son.
Evan didn’t blame his father for a second. It was his own fault that he had avoided his classmates. Howard had done the best he could, and Evan knew he was an ingrate.
But college…this was something entirely different. Evan tried to hide it, but he was terrified. Terrified that he’d be treated differently because of his handicap, terrified that he wasn’t prepared for higher education, and terrified of everything else he couldn’t think of. He wished desperately that he could go home.
Luckily, there was a wheelchair ramp for the housing office, and the two of them were quickly ushered in to see an employee whose desk proclaimed him to be Don Fletcher.
“Okay, what’s wrong?” Fletcher asked in an irritated voice.
Howard frowned at the other man’s tone. “My son’s dorm is not wheelchair accessible.”
Fletcher sighed. “What’s your son’s name?”
“Evan Chambers,” Howard said.
“Chambers…” Fletcher muttered, typing the name into his laptop computer. He looked up, “He’s assigned to Yardley.”
“I realize that,” Howard said tightly. “But there is no wheelchair entrance to Yardley.”
Fletcher looked at Evan. “I don’t understand.”
Howard shook his head in anger. “How is he supposed to get into the dorm? There’s a…big flight of stairs to the entrance.”
Fletcher turned back to the computer and pressed a few more keys. “It doesn’t say here that he’s handicapped,” he said conclusively.
“Well, look at him! He’s in a wheelchair!” Howard said loudly. His face flushed and he lowered his voice. “There’s obviously been a mistake.”
“Even so,” Fletcher said, “we’re going to need a full medical exam to confirm this. There are no available handicapped rooms, so we can’t reassign a bunch of students to accommodate your son. You should have spoken to us earlier.”
“Well, I didn’t realize Yardley wasn’t wheelchair-accessible,” Howard said in a tone of controlled anger.
“I don’t know what I can do for you right now without a medical exam,” Fletcher explained. “Now if you’d like, we could store your son’s wheelchair for you while he’s living in Yardley…”
“I don’t believe this!” Howard exclaimed.
Evan cleared his throat. “I’m paralyzed,” he spoke up. “I can’t move my legs. I can’t…get around without the wheelchair.”
Fletcher blinked a few times as if this hadn’t occurred to him. “Oh,” he said. “Well, I don’t know then. I…you’re still going to need to have a medical exam.” He looked down at Evan and his eyes softened, “I’m sorry, those are the rules. I can arrange it all and have you settled by this evening though.”
It was nearly eight o’clock in the evening before Evan was reassigned to a room in Gregory House, living on the first floor with a freshman named Jonah Sanders. The medical exam had been awful. They had waited around for hours and the nurse had not been informed of Evan’s condition beforehand. Evan could still see her wincing when she caught sight of his catheter. Most people weren’t prepared to see something like that, but a nurse should have been.
When Evan and his father knocked on the door to his new room, a thin nervous-looking boy opened the door. He smiled at Evan, “Hey. Uh…come on in.”
Evan rolled into the room. It was a large common room with two desks and a couch. Off to one side, he could see a bedroom, which he guessed he would be sharing.
“I’m Evan,” he said, holding out a hand.
The boy took his hand hesitantly, “I’m Jonah.”
“Nice to meet you,” Evan said.
“Yeah,” Jonah said, looking around anxiously.
“I’ll get your bags,” Howard volunteered.
Jonah’s eyes widened, “Oh…do you need help?”
“Nah,” Howard refused, “there’s not too much. I think I can handle it.”
Howard left and Jonah stood there awkwardly, scratching his head. “Is that the bedroom?” Evan asked, pointing to the rear.
“Oh!” Jonah said. “Yeah, it is. Here, come on, I’ll show you. Yeah. I’m sorry it’s such a mess. I didn’t finish unpacking. I’ll finish tonight. I promise.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Evan assured him. “Relax.”
Jonah let out a deep breath, “Yeah. Sorry. It’s just…I’m really nervous about this whole…college thing.”
“So am I,” Evan admitted.
“Yeah, but I’m lousy at hiding it,” Jonah said with a crooked smile.
Jonah led him to the bedroom. It was fairly large with two dressers and a bunk bed. “I guess I’ll take the top bunk, huh?” Jonah said. Then his face flushed, “I’m sorry.”
Jonah shook his head, “Uh, nothing. Sorry.”
“You feel uncomfortable about the fact that I’m in a wheelchair, don’t you?” Evan stated.
“Um,” Jonah averted his eyes. “Maybe a little.”
“Listen,” Evan said. “I’ve been through a lot of shrink sessions, and I’ve learned to appreciate life. I’m happy with who I am. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Yes, really,” Evan said earnestly. “This is the way God meant for it to be and I accept it. I hope you can too, and that we can be friends.”
Just the way they told him to say it in therapy. Hey, maybe it he said it enough, he’d start to believe it.
“Well, yeah,” Jonah said with that awkward grin. “Yeah, I’d really like to be friends. I mean, we’re roommates.”
Jonah ran a hand nervously through his hair and Evan nearly gasped when he got a glimpse at his wrist. There was a thick scar running across the skin of the inside of his wrist. Evan could imagine what kinds of things could cause a scar like that. Nothing good, that’s for sure.
Howard brought up all Evan’s suitcases and helped him unpack some of his things. It started to get late, and Howard retired to his hotel after Evan reassured him he’d be okay.
“I’m never going to fall asleep,” Jonah said, falling onto the couch. “I’m way too keyed up. I can’t believe I’m really here.”
“It’s strange for me too,” Evan agreed. “The campus is so big. I feel like I’ll be lost.”
“I wasn’t very good at making friends back home,” Jonah admitted.
“How come?” Evan asked. “You’re such a nice person.”
Jonah shook his head, “I could never go up and talk to people. I was always afraid. Afraid they’d…I don’t know…tell me to get lost or something.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Evan said. Even though I’ve thought the same thing a hundred times since the accident.
“Especially girls,” Jonah said. “I can’t talk to girls for anything.” He bit down on his thumb.
“You should have more self-confidence,” Evan told him.
“How come you’re so confident?” Jonah challenged. “I mean, you’re in a…shit, I’m sorry. See? I’m a dumbass. I can’t say the right thing.”
“I told you not to worry about it,” Evan said. “I don’t mind. If there’s anything you want to ask me, go ahead.”
Jonah scratched his head, “Are…are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Please.”
“How…how did it happen?” Jonah asked.
“I was in a car crash,” Evan recalled. “My mother and my sister were killed and I was paralyzed. I was fourteen.”
“My god,” Jonah breathed. “That’s awful! I mean…”
“No, it’s okay,” Evan said. “It was awful. But I’ve recovered.”
“So…what exactly is wrong with you? That is, I mean…”
“Stop apologizing,” Evan ordered.
“Sorry…I mean, okay.”
“I have no feeling below my waist,” Evan explained.
“Nowhere?” Jonah asked.
“Nowhere,” Evan confirmed. “And I know what you’re thinking, because it’s the first thing I thought when I found out. No, I can’t feel my dick. I can’t control when I shit or take a piss, and I can’t get hard or have an orgasm.”
Jonah’s face was bright red. “I didn’t…”
“Listen,” Evan said, “I was fourteen. I had only discovered jerking off a few years earlier. I know what it is. And I know it’s the first thing any guy would think of.”
“I can’t believe you’re not depressed over this,” Jonah said earnestly.
“It was five years ago,” Evan said. “I was really depressed at the time. I wanted to kill myself. But I got over. It’s my life now and I accept it. How about you?”
Evan nodded toward his wrists. “Why did you try to kill yourself?”
Jonah looked down at the scars on his wrists. He blinked a few times. “I…I don’t really want to talk about it, if that’s okay.”
“From the side of those scars, it looks like you were pretty serious about it.”
“Yeah,” Jonah agreed. “I was.” He paused for a long time. “I’m a loser. You should probably know that.”
Evan stared at the college art building critically. It was one of the most beautiful sights on campus, with its gothic architecture and stained glass windows. Evan had been excited when he realized that one of his classes was in this building, happy to have the privilege of being in such an elegant place. Then when he arrived at the art building, his eyes glassed over when he noticed the three steps he would have to climb to get inside. It was like a repeat of what had happened days ago with Yardley Hall.
If only there were one step instead of three. Evan knew he could handle one step, if the step wasn’t too big. He just had to give his back wheels a good turn and the front wheels would lift just enough to go over the step. That was the benefit of having a manual chair instead of an electric one. Of course, it was impossible to do that with three steps, especially when the steps were so close together.
Evan had managed to get all the way to college, now he was faced with a problem that a three-year-old would be able to tackle, and he was completely helpless.
He circled the dorm a few times, looking for a wheelchair entrance, but no luck. Beautiful as the building was, it was built like a fortress against handicapped people.
Evan got back to the three steps and stared at them, willing them to magically turn into a ramp.
“You look like you need some help,” said a voice from behind him.
Evan turned his chair slightly and saw a lanky, good-looking boy with short hair standing near him. “I have a class here,” Evan said awkwardly.
“There’s no ramp?” the boy asked.
Evan shook his head. “If you could…” his face flushed. “If you could pull me in, then maybe there’s an elevator inside.” He hoped so. His class was on the second floor, and there was no way he could manage a whole flight of stairs.
“No problem,” the boy said.
Evan positioned his chair so that the back faced the stairs. The boy grabbed the handles of the chair and pulled him up. Evan felt like a sack of potatoes, although it wasn’t as bad as when he had to be carried up a whole flight of stairs.
“It’s really awful they don’t have a ramp,” the boy said. “By the way, I’m Anton.”
“I’m Evan,” Evan said.
“Nice to meet you,” Anton said with a grin. “What do you have in this building?”
“Art History One.”
“No kidding! Me too!”
The two boys entered the building. They showed their ID’s to the guard inside who waved them in. The first thing Evan saw was the long flight of stairs to get to the next level. He groaned. “I knew it.”
“There’s an elevator,” the guard said. He pointed to an old elevator, which looked like it hadn’t been used since it was built about fifty years earlier.
“I’ll go with you,” Anton said.
They approached the elevator. It was a close call, but they manage to get Evan’s wheelchair inside. As he had expected, the elevator was excruciatingly slow and creaked at every step of the way. As the rode upward, Evan noticed that Anton was casting furtive glances at his motionless legs. It still bothered Evan a little when people did that, although he was used to it after four years. People were curious and they couldn’t help it. Then again, he was only eighteen and didn’t like being stared at.
“After class, we should complain to the guard about those stairs,” Anton said.
Evan nodded idly, aware that complaints about inaccessibility were rarely heeded. He had to choose a high school to attend soon after the car accident that paralyzed him, and a big factor in his decision had been accessibility. He probably could have sued a school for not being accessible, but he didn’t want the trouble or the attention. The school he chose provided him with free transportation too, which was also a big factor in his decision. Public buses too often passed right by instead of going through the trouble of loading on a wheelchair passenger, and if the bus did stop, all the other passengers were annoyed because it took so much time to load him on. Then they’d just stare at him through the whole ride.
Art History One turned out to be an interesting class. It was taught in an informal manner, around a long table set up for discussions. Evan and Anton sat together, and listened as the professor introduced himself as Dave and gave a brief overview of art during the renaissance. After the lecture was over, Evan was surprised that Dave walked over to him as the rest of the class filed out.
“I hope it wasn’t too much trouble for you to get into the building,” Dave said.
“A little,” Evan admitted. He glanced at his new friend. “Anton helped me out.”
“They promised me they’d have a ramp up by today,” Dave told him. “If they don’t have one by next time, I’m going to go out and buy it myself.”
“Thanks,” Evan said, unable to suppress a grin. Everyone was so nice around here that he wondered why he had worried about college in the first place.
“Are you going to be okay getting out?” Dave asked.
“We can manage,” Anton said quickly.
They got Evan out they same way they had gotten him in. Anton held onto the back handles and lowered him carefully down the steps. When they were at the bottom, Anton let go and brushed off his hands. “Hey, Evan, I was about to get some lunch. Do you want to join me?”
Evan smiled. Yesterday he had gone to the dining hall alone and it seemed like people were avoiding him like the plague. He kept his eyes pinned on his food most of the time, but when he looked up somebody would always quickly avert their eyes. He had spent fourteen years being able bodied and he knew it was uncomfortable to be around somebody who was in a chair. You don’t know what to say to them. You can’t treat them the same. He had noticed that his friends had all acted differently once he was paralyzed. “Lunch would be great,” Evan said.
To be continued...