“I need you to do me a favor this weekend. Well, not all weekend—just Saturday.” She made her cute face out of habit, though she was making it into the phone. Down the hall, Ruthe was bellowing her name for the tenth time that day.
Alex was nonplussed. “I don’t trust you making requests. You’re a little shady, you know.”
“I’m totally villainous, I know. I just need you to come to my house.”
“And this is a big deal?”
“Well, there’s a slight chance that there may be about twenty other people there.”
“You said you’d meet my friends,” she whined.
“I didn’t mean now.”
“Not now—three days from now.”
He had slipped easily back into anti-social mode since he’d been sentenced to the wheelchair. He hadn’t left the house since he came back from his doctor’s office. He had no intention of doing so. Jasmine failed to see the issue—it wasn’t like the options were to appear disabled or not, there was no way around that. And it wasn’t like she knew a single person who hadn’t already heard about him for months.
He was silent. Then, “I don’t know. I’ll think about it. Come over tonight.”
“I can’t, honey—I have that certification class. I’ll have to see you tomorrow.”
He sighed, displeased. “Fine. Call me when you get home, okay?”
Jasmine’s house was accessible through a pleasant twist of fate. It was high on top of a hill but it sat flat on the ground; there were no steps into the house and none on the inside. It had hardwood floors because of the owners’ alleged dust allergy, and since (like the Prescott’s much larger home) it had been built in the twenties, the halls were wider than modern houses.
She took Alex’s wheelchair from the back seat and folded it out, locked the break for him. She stood behind him, slightly nervous, as he pulled himself into the chair and then moved his feet into the footrests. He backed away from the car and pushed the door shut. Then he wheeled himself around the car and up to the front door.
Inside, he looked around silently as she went to put his bag in her bedroom. The cat, unsure of the wheelchair, hid under the coffee table. Her place was mostly as he’d imagined—relatively small, filled with books and trinkets, the walls covered in framed photographs and unframed paintings. She reemerged from the back of the house and offered to fix him a drink; he asked for a screwdriver and she went into the kitchen, pausing on her way to straighten a pile of envelopes on an end table.
He wheeled himself closer to the back wall of the room and looked up at the pictures in frames that spread all over the wall. He saw her much younger, as a child beside an older boy; as a college student perched atop a keg; in one, she was outside, sitting on the shoulders of another girl. There were countless images of strangers, people he hadn’t the vaguest conception of who knew her more deeply than he did—there was a faint stirring of jealousy in the back of his mind that he tried to ignore. A picture of a boy with curly hair and a cigarette; a picture of two girls in black dresses and too much make-up; in one corner, a picture of a skinny young man with huge, hollow looking eyes in a wheelchair.
“Who’s that?” He pointed into the corner as she handed him a glass.
She smiled slightly. “Johnny.”
He sipped his drink and looked up at her. She was contemplating the photograph above her head, still smiling.
“I miss him,” she finally said, shaking her head.
“Where is he?”
She set her down her glass and put her hands on his shoulders. “It’s not your fault,” she said lightly. It was the same thing he said when people apologized for his having been hurt. “He had bone marrow cancer. It’s been, damn, I guess almost four years.”
As she moved away from him she let her fingers trail along the back of his neck. He took that as an invitation and wheeled behind her to the couch. She sat down and took a long swallow of her drink as he transferred onto the couch beside her. She looked distracted and far away. He took her hand in his and raised it to his lips. She looked over at him with wet eyes.
“In class, Johnny and I had a bio lab together, I used to give him massages. All day, sometimes. I think they say bone marrow cancer is one of the most painful. He was the one who told me I should be a therapist. He was sweet.”
“You’ve got a lot of love, don’t you? I wonder what it’s like.” The jealousy he’d felt earlier had subsided into the fascination of learning more about her. He stroked the side of her face gently, watched the shadows of her eyelashes moving on her cheeks.
“It hurts,” she said softly.
The music from the living room was loud, but not unpleasantly so. Jasmine’s hips swayed as she stood at the bathroom counter rolling a joint. Alex watched her lips move as she sang to herself silently. Beside him on the floor sat the infamous Kyle, taking swigs from a bottle of cheap bourbon as he told Alex the story of his first encounter with Jasmine. Kyle, who seemed to be largely composed of bushy black hair, cigarette smoke and long, tapered fingers, seemed to have adopted Alex as his new best friend for the evening.
“So, I couldn’t go to the show, ‘cause of that bastard fucking paper. And I’m in my room at the computer, trying to work around all this goddamn noise from the courtyard—you want some of this?” He offered Alex the bottle; Alex accepted and swallowed with a wince. “And then there’s this knock at the window. I thought it was a knock, but it was a rock. My friend Johnny’s outside in the courtyard throwing fucking gravel at my window. And he’s got this chick on his lap—which you don’t see everyday, some fine ass woman sitting on this guy’s lap who’s in a wheelchair, although, shit, maybe you do see it everyday.”
Jasmine looked up from her task long enough to roll her eyes and shake her head.
“She’s all drunk, of course,” Kyle continued. “You don’t let her fool you with this grown-up shit she’s playing at, she was a wild kid.”
“I was like 18,” she objected. “Stop starting all your sentences with ‘and’. You’ve got a degree in English, Kyle.”
Kyle looked plaintively up at Alex. “You see what you’re getting into with her? Anyway, so of course I have to say screw the paper and go check this out. And I’m smooth, see—I’ve got this shirt on that says ‘scratch my back’ and has, like, a diagram on it. And she’s got these long ass blood red fingernails, so…”
He kept talking as the three of them huddled in the bathroom smoking. Periodically someone knocked on the door and was sent away. When they vacated the bathroom Kyle insisted on taking Alex into the guest room to introduce him to someone he evidently expected to find there; Jasmine bowed out apologetically, as someone was screaming her name across the house.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Are you going to quit asking me that?” he returned.
She said sorry, kissed him on the cheek and then bounced off down the hallway yelling what at the top of her lungs.
“You’re just so cute,” Susan gushed, hanging onto Jasmine’s shoulder in the cramped kitchen. “Do you know? Do you have pictures together? You have to see how cute you are! David, where’s my camera?”
“It’s in your hand, Susan,” Jasmine supplied.
“Oh, wow. Damn. Ok, look, we have to go now.” She removed her arm, put it back to steady herself and then removed it again. “We have to go take a picture.”
“I don’t think you can operate your hand right now, much less that camera.”
“See? I don’t think you used to be such a smart ass; it must be Alex rubbing off on you. Eric! Have you met Jazzy’s boyfriend? Isn’t he adorable?”
The guy with his head in the fridge said, “He’s pretty cute, Jasmine. If you’re not using him later…”
Susan cackled and stumbled out of the room. Jasmine followed her into the living room, then out to the back porch. Kyle was sitting on top of a cooler playing guitar very badly. Alex was watching, amused, from a corner; he had his elbow on the armrest of the wheelchair and his head propped on his hand. The light from the bare bulb in the ceiling cast a glow over his face so that he looked more like a painting than a real person. Jasmine walked over to him, through the small cluster of girls who were transfixed by Kyle’s silliness, and sat down on the dirty concrete beside him. He pulled her up by her hand and placed her on his lap, kissing her cheek as she settled in.
Susan shrieked. “You see? Do you see how fucking cute you are?”
The flash on Susan’s camera went off several times, eliciting complaints from everyone present. Jasmine doubted her friend’s ability to aim the camera properly and wondered what she’d actually taken pictures of. The back door opened and Susan’s boyfriend David came out, purse in hand.
“Jas,” he said, smiling, “lovely as always. I’m going to take her home before she pukes on the carpet again.”
“Hey!” Susan objected loudly, turning on her heel and falling into him. “That wasn’t my fault.”
Jasmine waved at the departing couple and told them to drive safely. She heard Alex yawn and looked down at her watch. It was two thirty in the morning. She stood up and stretched languidly, turned back to Alex and asked if he was ready for bed.
He nodded. “I guess so.”
She walked over to Kyle, kissed him on the cheek and patted his wild hair. “You better be ready tomorrow. Your flight’s what, three fifteen?”
He nodded. “Yes, Mummy. And I even packed already. I have done this before.”
She popped him lightly on the cheek. “Handle this mess, please. I’m exhausted.”
He nodded, put the guitar down and stood up, scooping her up in his arms and hugging her tightly. “Thanks for the send-off, Jasmine.”
Alex lay on her bed passively as she took off his clothes. As she slid off his jeans she left a trail of small kisses along his legs. When pants and boxers were on a heap beside the bed she straddled him and lifted up his shirt to lick playfully at his stomach. The parts of his body uninjured in the accident were highly valued by Alex; accordingly, they were in top condition. His arms were thin but muscular, perfectly shaped. His stomach was hard and flat. She stopped for a moment just to look at him, and sighed contentedly.
“You are gorgeous, you know.” She said, smiling slightly at him.
He pushed himself up against the head board and pulled off his shirt. Then he touched her cheek. “I’m glad you think so. I thought you were tired?”
She cocked her head. “You want to go to sleep?”
“Oh, okay.” A little confused, she got up to remove her skirt and t-shirt and walked over to the light switch.
When she came back to snuggle against his chest he said, “What would your friends do if you weren’t so tiny?”
She wondered if she was drunker than she’d thought or if he really wasn’t making any sense. “What do you mean?”
“They toss you around like a doll.”
“People have always done that to me,” she said, sighing. “Sometimes it’s really annoying—you know, I’m out somewhere trying to be a grown up and suddenly I’m over somebody’s shoulder.”
“And sometimes it’s not so annoying. Sometimes it makes you laugh; it makes you feel close to the one who’s carrying you around.”
Oh, that’s what this is, she thought.
“It bothers you?” she asked. “That you can’t pick me up like a little girl. Do you think it’s that important, Alex?”
“You don’t think so? You’re an affectionate person, playful; you’re used to certain behavior, a certain set of actions between you and the people you love. It’s ingrained in you.”
“Alex, I can’t change the things my friends do. I can’t rewrite my past to make you feel better. None of this shit, none of the things you worry about matter to me. I don’t care that you can’t carry me around like a toy and I don’t care that we’ll never be on the floor at a concert and I don’t fucking care about the scars or the braces or the chair. I don’t know what else you need me to say.”
He put his hand on her face and turned it toward him, kissed her hard on the mouth. “Okay.”