Part V. Unexpected

After a three minute argument between the siblings over whether or not Monica was a capable driver the three of them finally pulled out of the driveway, Jasmine driving Alex’s car and little sister scowling in the back. It was a quiet ride into downtown, and a long one due to weekend traffic. Alex picked at his thumbnail with his pinky finger and rarely relaxed his brows.

“Why are you so nervous?” Monica queried, having decided to speak to him again. She leaned in between the two front seats so she could look at her brother.

“Why are you so obnoxious?”

“I think you’re crazy. Jeremy…”

“Monica, really; be quiet.” He loved her, and was trying very hard to make a show of adventurousness for Jasmine but he only had so much patience. There were things he didn’t want to discuss with his baby sister—mostly the things she was so intent on questioning him about. “I’m sure your little friend is the very epitome of the crippled social scene, but it has nothing to do with me.”

Monica sat back and looked at her shoes. Alex picked at his fingers and stared at the window. Jasmine spent the next ten minutes trying to think of a reason to go home and was unable to come up with one. Eventually she was forced to park and get out of the car. As she reached in the back of the car for Alex’s crutches she told Monica to go in and make sure they wouldn’t have to wait too long. Then she went to stand in front of Alex, who was lifting his right leg out of the car with a pained expression on his face.

She held the crutches in one hand and reached out with the other to touch his face.

“You don’t have to be here,” she said. “If you’re just giving in to her…”

He shook his head and reached for his crutches, pushing himself up and stepping laboriously onto the sidewalk. “Let’s just go. We can shut her up, we can say I’ve been out ‘like a normal person’ again, and we can go home.”

Monica was standing outside the restaurant looking confused. There were four steps leading to the front door from the sidewalk and there didn’t appear to be another way in.

“It’s fine,” Alex told her. “Just open the door.”

Even four steps up in the leg braces was a chore. He handed the left crutch to Jasmine and grabbed the railing with that hand and leaned on it heavily. He placed the other crutch on the first step and stepped up with his left foot; then he swung the right leg up to meet it. The hostess was watching as he made the top step and took the crutch Jasmine handed him; the girl looked terribly embarrassed, she was blushing and stammered when she greeted them.

“Three, smoking. Thanks.” Monica chirped orders in her mother’s voice.

They were taken to the table despite the crowd of people who had gotten there before them, a fact that did not escape their notice. Alex pulled out Jasmine’s chair, then sat beside her. As he unlocked the stabilizer on his knee he said to her, “Isn’t that charitable of them? Do you think that’s company policy?”

“I never made hot guys wait for tables, either,” she retorted. “I need to pee, will you order me a beer? Sapporo?” As she stood she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

Monica excused herself, leaving an order for bottled water, and followed Jasmine to the ladies’ room. She hopped up onto the counter as Jasmine went into a stall. She didn’t bother waiting for her companion to come out again before she started talking.

“He’s never going to forgive me.”

Jasmine laughed shortly. “Monica, he’s just kind of… sensitive. He isn’t really mad at you.”

“Yeah, not yet. But when he sees Becky and Geoff he’s going to kill me. He’s going to hate me.”

“Oh, God, Monica—what did you do?” Jasmine came out of the stall too flustered to wash her hands and stood gaping at the girl on the counter.

“I thought it would be a good surprise, you know? If he was feeling better and going out and stuff… and they really wanted to see him, you know? The only reason they even email me is to ask me about him ‘cause he wasn’t talking for the longest time.”

“Ok, all right. Well, you fucked up. And we’re going to go home now, and maybe you can live another day or two.”

They walked nervously through the crowded restaurant only to find their worst fears realized as they neared the table. Their seats were taken by a man with graying hair and black rimmed glasses and a chubby, beaming blonde; the interlopers were holding hands and beaming at Alex. Alex was gnawing on his top lip as if biting hard enough might make all this go away. As they got closer Jasmine whispered to Monica that she was going to kill her.

“You look really good,” the woman, Becky, was saying to Alex as Jasmine came to stand behind him. “Oh, hi.”

“Becky, Geoff, this is Jasmine McKay; she’s my massage therapist.” His voice was cold and even; he pulled away when she tried to lay a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s nice to meet you, Jasmine,” they said in unison.

Geoff stood and held his hand out to Alex, saying, “We had planned to join you guys for lunch, but Monica apparently wasn’t quite prepared for the place to be full to capacity. We’re going to go down the street to The Blue Mill. It was good to see you, Alex. They’re doing a reading this weekend, you ought to try and get out.”

Becky stood after her husband and kissed Alex on the top of the head. “I miss you, Sweetie. Call us some night for dinner, ok? Bye, Monica.”

The girls resumed their seats with some trepidation. Both watched Alex as he silently studied his hands in his lap. The waiter approached and was summarily sent away by the man of the hour, who then turned his attention to his younger sister. Before he got a chance to speak she nervously blurted out, “It was me. I called them. Jasmine didn’t know. It was my fault.”

“Do you have your card?” he asked her pointedly.

“What?” Monica’s voice was quavering faintly in expectation of the brutal scene that she sensed was coming.

“Master Card; have you got it?”

She nodded.

“Then go call a cab.”

“But, Alex, all I…”

“I sincerely wish you’d go, little girl; I can’t promise I’ll continue to be so friendly if you linger.”

She looked imploringly at Jasmine, who just nodded gently. Monica slung her purse over her shoulder and walked off with her head down, tears streaming from her eyes. When she was gone Alex looked at Jasmine and said he was sorry.

“I thought that you were… involved, you know? I shouldn’t have. I should have told them who you are; who you really are.”

“Yeah. And now you should order me a drink if you plan on staying.”

“You forgive me?” He cocked his head, considered her with pursed lips and a thoughtful expression. “I wouldn’t blame you if you left.”

“I’m not leaving, Alex.”

The waiter returned momentarily and drinks were ordered. Alex finished off a vodka tonic before they even ordered and another as they waited for their food. Jasmine sipped her imported beer and listened while he catalogued the problems of his emotional life.

“It’s not like I was some athlete, a fucking marathon runner or something and I lost the only thing I loved or any of that shit. But, hell, I could walk up a flight of stairs. I could stand up in a crowded room without people watching me. Little kids never had to be told not to stare at me. It’s just different now. I’m not the same person; and Geoff and Becky, they want the person they knew, to stay up all night babbling about goddamn books with them and debating literary theory because that was all I had in my mind.” He paused to light a cigarette with a slightly shaking hand. “And they didn’t see me, today—not really. They didn’t see the braces or the scars, didn’t see me limping around on those crutches, taking fucking steps one at a time. Becky would probably have burst into tears; I don’t want those pity looks. I hate them. And I don’t want to talk about it—about the wreck and the operations and the therapy and the goddamn stupid support group. I just want to... to not be this way. I don’t want to deal with any of this.”

She put her hand on his forearm and squeezed. “I know.”

At that moment the food was set down and another drink ordered; then Alex looked at her and said, “People say that—that they know. And they don’t. They just can’t. But from you… I don’t know, from you it’s not so patronizing.”

She smiled wryly and reached for a slice of eel roll. Speaking around the lump of food in her mouth she said, “Because I do know. Kind of. I know what it was like when I got out of the hospital and everyone wanted to see me—like I was on display, almost died and they wanted to make sure I was really still here. I felt like they were always waiting for some new disaster to follow the first one.”

She swallowed, took a drink of her beer and reached for another piece of sushi, nervous about the conversation she’d started and not totally wanting to continue it. He was looking at her quizzically, ignoring the plate in front of him and sipping his drink.

“What happened? You don’t have any scars—I saw your body, it’s perfect.”

“Hmph.” She reached under her chair for her bag and removed three pill bottles from it, placing them on the table between them. “Perfect is debatable; I’ll admit the outside’s in better condition than the in. Prozac; once a day, every day. Depakote; twice a day, every day. Valium; once a day, sometimes more, every day. I should have told you this before we got this far, and I’m sorry. You should have been giving the option of backing out as soon as I told you how I felt about you.” She took a long swallow of her beer before she looked back into his eyes.

“You’re bi-polar.” He was calm, sounded concerned but not scared, which was what she’d been afraid of.

She nodded. “I left school half way through my freshman year; tried to kill myself, with my anti-depressants, no less. That was after three weeks of unadulterated craziness, not sleeping or eating, I got four speeding tickets, spent a thousand dollars on bags and shoes; I painted my dorm room purple.” She reached for her beer again. “And then I crashed—hard. So I was locked up for about 3 months; they dicked with my meds for awhile, made me talk to this group of other lunatics, like that was going to make it all better. I don’t think anybody was really convinced when I got out—but my dad wasn’t going to pay them anymore so I got to leave.”

The waiter appeared with more booze and didn’t bother to speak to either of them. It was quite obvious very little mattered other than their conversation. Alex was watching her, fascinated, as she threw the little brown bottles back into her bag.

“You asked me how I could be attracted to you because of your legs, because of the crutches.” She took out one of his Marlboros and lit it, blew smoke out with her next words. “Do you want to be tied up with someone who needs three bottles of pills to make her brain function? Do you know what it’s like—to be with a crazy girl?”

For a moment he just looked at her. Then he smiled. “Won’t we be cute? A lunatic and a cripple. We can be in one of those Chicken Soup books.”

To be continued