Of course, she drove. Alex got into the passenger seat and put his crutches in the back seat without any assistance, though she lingered momentarily behind him in case he needed her. It took a few minutes for Jasmine to acclimate herself to driving with the wrong foot, but they were soon on their way. As she drove into the city they talked about music and bars, the social scene he had been a part of before the accident.
“Carrie—Carolyn, she wasn’t really into just hanging out; ever. We had dinner parties and balls and all these really, really bad plays.” He laughed, “I was completely tricked. All through college it was kegger here, concert there, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It’s like we hit twenty-three and became my parents. She was on me all the time about those damn horses her father raises—I hated being around those things; she didn’t care. ‘They’re worth millions, Alex’…blah blah blah.”
“You had your own friends, though, your little artsy writer buddies?”
As they approached the interstate ramp headed north, the odometer turned over to twelve. Jasmine had never driven a new car before and was childishly excited by the way it responded to her commands.
“Yeah,” he sighed, “Geoff and Becky, and Mark, I guess. When Mark was around it was a great time—Carrie and I always fought, I’d stay out until six in the morning with them and then go straight to class. Of course, my students knew I was out of it. I guess that’s the advantage of teaching upper level courses; they get it.”
“You loved that job.”
He nodded, “It was what I wanted to do—that and write. Carrie always said I cared more about books than real people.”
“More than some ‘real’ people, I guess.”
Carrie-- Carolyn, or whatever he was calling her-- was a sore subject with Jasmine, who was trying very hard to be a good listener. She was his high school sweetheart, to whom he got engaged their freshman year of college. Alex’s wreck happened two months before their wedding; by that point she had called off their relationship altogether, saying she was unable to “deal with a disabled husband”. From the way he spoke of their relationship and of her, and from conversations with his sister, Jasmine gathered he hadn’t been in love with her by then, but the rejection based on his disability had hurt him more deeply than he cared to discuss with anyone.
He was smoking a cigarette and watching the outskirts of Birmingham flash by his window. It was a familiar drive, the way he was taken to physical therapy and to his orthopedist, but it was nighttime now and he was venturing out for recreation. There was a slight smile on his lips that pleased her immensely. She was still surprised he was so willing to be out with her; she knew he was nervous. Even going into the hospital he was convinced people were staring at his legs—it was hard for him to be around other people. For the past few weeks he had been talking on the phone and exchanging emails with the friends he’d mentioned earlier but had not allowed them to visit him. He said he wasn’t ready for them to see him walk. Jasmine hoped strangers would be easier.
When they arrived at the restaurant she parked all of ten feet from the front door. She smiled at Alex and said, “Well, that’s certainly the first time I’ve done that.”
“Parked less than half a mile away?” He asked as he unfastened his seat belt and opened his door.
“Yep.” She reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear.
He grinned, “Well, I’m very glad I could be of service, Jasmine.”
She took the crutches out of the back seat then stood in front of him with them. He lifted his right leg out of the car, locked the knee and then swung his left foot onto the pavement. He held onto the door as he pushed himself into a standing position then he took the crutches from her. He stood still for a moment, just looking at her.
“Are you ok? You ready?” She looked up at him; the heels on her boots weren’t quite as high as she’d like.
He nodded. “Yeah. I think so.”
The way into the building was flat concrete and there were no steps leading up to the door. Jasmine had thought very carefully before selecting a destination. She had also called hours earlier and reserved a table in a front corner so that he wouldn’t have to walk through the whole restaurant and would be able to lean his crutches against the wall. Through five years of college she had waited tables here and hated it passionately; now she was thankful to have connections—The Red Room did not accept reservations for parties of two.
They were seated across from the bar. As soon as she had sat down, after helping Alex position his crutches satisfactorily, they were accosted by the bartender. He came over to the table and threw his arms around Jasmine.
“Jazz! I though you were busy tonight,” he said accusingly. He didn’t bother to look at Alex, but stood beaming at her.
She smiled quickly at him. “I am busy, Rodney. I have a date—one that I’ve been trying to get for months, as a matter of fact, so you’re going to have to go back into your little cave.”
Eyebrows contracting, Rodney now glanced at Alex. “Hey, man, you’re lucky, you know that? Jazz is wild.”
Alex nodded, shifted in his chair. “I’m very lucky.”
“Rodney,” Jasmine looked up at him with a pointed expression, “this is Alex. I’ve been madly in love with him for a very long time, this is the first time he’s consented to be seen with me and you’re interrupting. Am I going to have to have you fired?”
Rodney practically guffawed. “Whatever, Jazz-min. You guys have fun—don’t let her wear you out, dude.”
He went disappeared through the kitchen door and Jasmine put her head in her hands, mumbled that she was terribly sorry. Alex laughed.
“Come here often, do you?”
“Unfortunately,” she said. “I was so busy when I was in school everyone I knew was from work, so… I guess I’m still kind of attached to this place. And I get free drinks, so, you know.”
“How long has Rodney been trying to fuck you?” he asked with a sweet smile.
She made a face. “God, years. He isn’t terribly bright, I’m afraid. He’s forever telling me he’s in love with me.”
“Maybe it’s true.”
“Rodney’s not in love with anything but his dick,” she said matter-of-factly. “Besides which, I’m sure I can do much better.”
Their server bounced over seconds later, smiling at Jasmine. Alex saw her eyes flicker over to his crutches leaning in the corner and her smile widened. Without so much as speaking to Jasmine she turned her attention to Alex, calling him by name.
“It’s very, very nice to meet you,” she said, offering him her freckled hand. “I’m Susan. I’ve been waiting and waiting—Jasmine’s been babbling about…”
“Oh, Christ, Susan,” the other girl interjected, “please shut up.”
Alex, flattered and starting to blush, delved into the etiquette training of his early years for composure. “It’s nice to meet you, too, Susan. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Oh, really?” She giggled. “Not as much as I’ve heard about you, I bet. You know, Alex, you better stick with bottled water tonight, or Jazzy’s gonna get you drunk and take advantage of you.”
Jasmine’s eyes roamed the floorboards looking for a hole in the earth she could crawl into and die. Alex, who was enjoying himself immensely, said, “Actually, that was what I had in mind, being taken advantage of. I’d like a Tnageuray Martini— Jasmine?”
“I’d like a glass of Riscal, Susan. And take your time, really.”
“Don’t worry, Alex,” Susan said over her shoulder, “I won’t leave you alone with her for too long!”
When she had gone Alex burst into laughter. “Jazzy?”
“Yeah, well,” Jasmine rolled her eyes. “I knew you were nervous—I figured having my self embarrassed repeatedly might make you feel more comfortable. It’s all about you, Alex.”
“It’s certainly been less painful than I’d feared.” He reached across the table and took her hand. “Thank you.”
She smiled. “I’m just glad you’re here. I was so scared…”
“Scared I already had dinner plans this evening?”
“Scared you didn’t feel the way I did. Terrified is more like it. I’ve been a wreck lately—that’s why Susan’s so excited.” She blushed and put her head down. “Actually one night last week, on about cocktail number three, I decided to call you and profess my love. At midnight. She was the one who suggested I wait.”
He shook his head in amazement. “I can’t believe you were nervous. About me. Has anyone ever not wanted you?”
“I don’t think so,” she laughed. “But mostly I meet idiots in restaurants and bars. You’re a little different. And there’s a bit of a difference in me and your last girlfriend, you know. I wasn’t so sure you’d want to go out with…”
He interrupted her. “A girl who’s not superficial and totally obsessed with amassing large sums of money? You’re right. There’s a huge difference between you and Carolyn. You’re prettier, you’re smarter and you care about me. You also have a vast wealth of amusing nicknames.”
Carolyn Crosby, his Carrie of years past, was the daughter of an iron man; the fourth in his family to command a mining empire which she would inherit after his death. The Crosbys also owned a chain of hotels in the area, a horse farm and three high-end grocery stores. Jasmine’s family owned a twenty-five thousand dollar house with four year old vinyl siding and two used cars.
Susan came back with their drinks and a bottle of San Pellegrino. “Do you guys want to hear about the specials tonight?”
“No, thanks,” Jasmine waved her hand. “But we haven’t really looked at the menu yet, either; we need a few more minutes.”
“Fine,” Susan said, sticking her tongue out at her friend. “Keep him all to yourself. I’ll be back in a few minutes, guys.”
There was a brief discussion of the quality of steaks and pastas in the establishment while they sipped their drinks. Both settled on the filet and the conversation, interrupted briefly by the reappearance of the bubbly waitress, turned to Jasmine’s years of employment in the restaurant business, then to their vastly different upbringings. Alex was a product of the most expensive private schools in the state; he went to college with no consideration of student loans and nearly gave his mother a stroke when he declared himself an English major. At the end of the meal they were discussing parental views on their chosen paths in life.
“Jane was all for the high school lit journal, the school paper,” he explained as he lit a cigarette, “shit she could clip out and show her friends—has she shown you the scrapbook?”
“Well, there is a God.” Alex rolled his eyes. “My roommate freshman year came out to his parents about the same time I dropped pre-law. I’m pretty sure that I caused twice the familial unrest Darren did. And, of course, Carolyn was not amused.”
He had drunk four martinis. Jasmine was a heavy drinker herself and not very good at gauging the tolerance of others; however, she was fairly certain he had quite a buzz by the end of dinner. She was becoming moderately concerned for his capacity to walk straight, or at all. She waved her hand at Susan and ordered two cups of espresso.
“Carolyn,” he continued, exhaling smoke upward toward the light fixture, “was dead set against it. Until she read about John Grisham in an issue of Forbes. And someone told her Hemingway had a house in Key West.”
“Did she want you to write bad best-sellers about legal proceedings or become an alcoholic and shoot yourself with your father’s gun?” Jasmine had been known, once or twice, to pay attention in English class.
He laughed. “I’ll tell you her little secret. She just needed a husband. It didn’t really matter what I did. Her father—who has to be the most backward thinking, pompous, self-important asshole to walk the earth—won’t leave her anything but a house and an allowance unless she’s married. She could marry a grocer or a dog-walker as long as it’s a man and she’ll get her precious inheritance.” Pleased with his disclosure, Alex leaned back and nodded.
The coffee arrived and Alex ordered the check. Susan was displeased at their imminent departure and pouted.
“You guys should go to The Courtyard tonight,” she said as she scooped up several empty glasses. “It’s Elvis night. Have you been to Elvis night, Alex?”
Alex shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure, Susan. But we’ll have to save that for another time. I’m going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight. I am sorry.”
She giggled. “Oh, you two are perfect for each other.”
He took out his wallet, removed several bills and shoved them without ceremony into the check presenter. “Did you hear? Perfect.”
Jasmine laughed. “Alex, you know what happens if you’ve gotten yourself drunk. You were fairly advised.”
He leaned over and touched her cheek. “We have more pressing matters right now. I need you to come here.”
She stood and walked around the table to him. He had pushed his chair back from the table and was reaching for his crutches. She took them in her left hand, held out her right to him. With one hand on the seat of his chair and the other in hers, he pulled himself to his feet, locked his brace and took the crutches from her.
“It’s that way,” Jasmine said, guessing his intentions, “at the end of the bar.”
He nodded and started in that direction. Although he seemed fine on his feet, she grabbed her purse from the table and walked behind him. When elbowed open the door to the men’s room and vanished inside. She leaned against the bar.
“What are you doing, Jazz?”
“I’m waiting, Rodney. Afterwards I’ll be leaving. Why are you so interested?”
“I mean what are you doing with that guy? Is he one of your patients? He has to be one of your patients.”
She sighed. “I don’t have patients, Rodney, I’m not a doctor—I’m a massage therapist, actually, I’m just a masseuse, really—I have clients. Much like the last twelve times we discussed my job.”
“Client. Fine. Whatever you want to call him. Do you, like, feel bad for him? You’re not fucking him, are you?”
Her eyes narrowed and she leaned in closer to him. “Not yet, Rodney—but I plan to very, very soon. Maybe he can tell you about it afterwards?”
“How? He’s crippled, Jazz—how do you even know he can get it up?”
“According to several of your former girlfriends, Rod, you could ask yourself the same question.”
She heard Alex emerge from the men’s room and turned to smile at him.
“You’re an asshole,” she said pointedly to the bartender.
As Alex lowered himself into the passenger seat he asked her what she’d discussed with Rodney. She stood beside the door as he put away the crutches then lifted his legs into the car.
“He was inquiring about my sex life.”
“And what did you tell him?”
She grinned, “That I expected a dramatic improvement at any moment.”
“And then he suggested you would doubtlessly be disappointed by the performance of your crippled boyfriend, and perhaps you would be better off calling short the pity date and going out with him?” He said as she got into the car and put the key in the ignition. His breath smelled like gin and cigarettes, it was warm and close to her face.
“Are we concerned with the opinion of the Neanderthal bartender, sweetheart?” She backed out of the parking space and started heading toward his house.
“I’m concerned,” he took out a cigarette, lit it and rolled the window down. “With your ability to withstand the onslaught of such questioning. I can’t imagine it’s going to stop. Hey, let’s go get another drink, huh?”
“You want to go out?”
“Because you haven’t left the house of your own accord in a year and we’ve already been gone for two hours. You’re not ready to go home?”
“I was injured, Jasmine,” he waved his Marlboro light like a conductor, “I’m not sick. Besides, we’re supposed to be on a date, aren’t we? Do your other dates take you home, well, do they make you drive yourself home so early?”
She turned the car around and headed to the bar Susan had mentioned earlier, although she wasn’t sure how good an idea it was. He was getting moody and would likely be downright volatile soon.
“I really don’t remember,” she said. “I haven’t been on a date in a long time.”
He was quiet for moment. Then he said, in a mocking tone, “Why’s that? Because of your secret fascination with the undead?”
“Because, Alex, I wanted you. I wanted you, and now I think I have you and you can be the biggest asshole you know how to be, and I’m not going away. Give me a cigarette.”
“You don’t smoke.”
“I do whatever the hell I want to do. And I want to smoke a cigarette.”
This seemed to amuse him, and amusement served to placate him for a little while. For the next fifteen minutes they talked about the condition of asphalt in the downtown area and questioned the timing of stoplights. The Courtyard wasn’t conveniently located in terms of handicapped parking. It was dead center in the middle of a block and the blue-lined spaces were at the corners. It would be a five minute walk for them. She looked questioningly at Alex, who turned away to open his door.
It was eleven o’clock on a Friday night and the bar was accordingly busy. It annoyed her that the crowd of people who moved out of their way either stared after Alex or refused to look at him altogether. The tight-lipped expression on his face told her that he noticed, too. She was starting to understand his insecurity; people were so uncomfortable for some reason. The couple made their way to another corner table, this one only a few feet from a small stage on which sat a lime-green piano and a cardboard sign proclaiming the presence of Elvis.
“If you want a drink tonight I don’t recommend we wait for the waitress,” Jasmine said as she dropped her bag onto a chair. “What do you want?”
He seemed subdued now and very focused on the effort of sitting down in a chair without armrests. “Vodka. Anything, but with vodka.”
She leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. “What makes you think they were staring at you, egomaniac? Have you noticed how my ass looks in this dress?”
He slid an arm around her waist and pulled her in front of him. “Holy, shit, you’re right! What was I thinking?”
Laughing, she squirmed out of his strong grip and walked back to the bar. When she returned to the table the stage lights were starting to brighten and music was coming from the speakers mounted on the walls. Alex had a confused look on his face as Elvis came out from behind the curtain to the tune of his greatest hit, “(What’s so Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding”.
He looked over at her as he picked up his drink. “Elvis?”
She roughly kicked her chair closer to his. “Nobody said Presley, buddy. You’re not in Tupelo.”
For a few songs they sat with their arms entwined, Jasmine’s head on Alex’s shoulder. Occasionally he’d run his fingers though her hair or kiss her cheek. Elvis night was a big time for Jasmine and her many drinking buddies; it was akin to a religious holiday at some points in her life—lately, she’d found herself lurking in the corner feeling vaguely dissatisfied. This was better. She wasn’t thinking about who was trying to pick her up or who she would need to avoid—in fact, she wasn’t thinking about anything. She was pressing her body as near to Alex as she could manage and breathing in the smoky scent of his hair and his skin. Her fingers ached to touch more of him than the public setting would allow.
A little after midnight he wanted to go. She paid the tab and came back to help him up; he was still sitting, had dropped one of his crutches. He looked up at her and smiled ruefully.
“I think I made a mistake.”
She kneeled down, picked up the crutch and held out her hand. “I once had to be carried out of here over another girl’s shoulder. I puked on her coat. You’re in good company.”
He stood up, locked his knee brace but didn’t reach for the crutch she held. Instead he brought her against him in a tight embrace. The chubby guy in Buddy Holly glasses pounded at the piano as they stood together silently. Around his shoulder Jasmine saw a table of college students watching them; a girl was staring with the face usually reserved for looking at a litter of kittens.
“I want to take you home,” Jasmine said, looking up at his face in the dim light of the bar. She reached up and traced the faint scar that ran along his right jawline. He took the crutch from her and nodded. She followed him to the car, ignoring several voices that called her name as they passed.