I almost expect Mother to have dinner on another floor, just to spite me. But when I wheel out of my room, I see that the dining table is set outside. The woman setting the table is unfamiliar to me. She is younger than Gwen, but equally sturdy. “You must be Eddie,” she says to me. “I’ve heard so much about you. My name is Eva.”
“Hello, Eva,” I say.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” Eva tells me.
I inhale the pleasant aroma billowing down the hall and I smile at her. I was never very good at talking to women. I am fortunate that it was Jennie who approached me in a discussion section for English Lit.
It is at this moment that Mother comes into the room, nursing a half-finished drink. She’s changed into a low cut blouse and skirt—I can’t help but wonder if she has changed clothes for my benefit. She looks achingly beautiful.
Ever since I was twelve, my mother has been giving me erections. I am painfully aware of how beautiful she is, and as soon as I became aware of women, I was aware of her. She was the only real woman I had access to (except for Gwen, who is older and matronly). I was always humiliated by the way my penis reacted to her.
Everyone in the house knows my reaction to my mother. It first came out in the open when I was fourteen. Gwen was changing my diaper in my room, like she did twice a day, when Mother walked in wearing one of her slinky outfits. Immediately, my penis stood at attention. I was humiliated when Gwen actually laughed and made a comment about my becoming a man. At the time, I thought that Mother was as embarrassed as I was, but after that, it seemed like she made an effort to dress more sexily in my presence. Or maybe it was all my imagination.
“Are we expecting company?” I ask her.
“Why, no,” Mother says. “It is just you and me tonight.” She adds with a wry smile: “Mother and son.”
Eva has placed a bowl of salad on the table and as Mother leans forward to take a portion, I find myself catching a glimpse of her cleavage. I can’t help but compare it to my wife’s.
“How is Jennifer?” Mother asks. “Why didn’t she come with you?”
“She’s very busy at work,” I lie.
“I would certainly like to meet her,” Mother says.
“We invited you to the wedding,” I remind her.
She does not answer, but instead takes a long swallow of her drink. It seems like there is more that she wants to say to me, but she remains silent. She is so good at talking to strangers—a master of social graces. But she has never been good at communicating with me. I can only remember tiny scraps of our relationship—her reading me a bedtime story one night, sitting by my side at dinner. I’ve been told she breastfed me.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the wedding,” Mother says finally.
“That’s all right.”
“Perhaps I could throw you an anniversary party?” she suggests. “I know my friends would love to see you again. The Langmans asked about you.”
I stare at her. When I was a child and Dr. and Mrs. Langman came to visit, I was always told to stay in my room. “But,” I say nervously, “then they’ll find out I’m in a wheelchair.”
She gulps down the rest of her drink. “Well, yes,” she agrees. “So what?”
I know at that moment, my mother and I are both picturing the same thing: the stares, the whispering. My own friends know and accept me in a wheelchair, as a handicapped individual. God only knows what Mother told her friends about me. In their eyes, I am some athletic go-getter businessman like my father. I don’t think either of us want to spoil that illusion.
“Thank you,” I tell her, “but Jennie and I already have something planned.”
She nods gratefully. “What is Jennifer like?”
“What can I say?” I smile. “She’s wonderful.”
“Nothing like me, I’m sure,” Mother says with a laugh.
How true. Women like my mother have always been way out of my league. I would never admit to her how much I’ve desired these women or how they never gave me a second look. She would take it the wrong way, I’m sure.
Mother reaches out and tousles my hair. The gesture surprises me, because she was never much for superfluous contact. Perhaps ten years without my father has changed her. Her fingers linger on my cheek. “My son,” she sighs. “Look at how well you came out.”
I lower my head and blush. When I look up again, I see that her eyes are focused on the quilt that covers my legs. She is, in fact, staring at it with such fixation that my left leg gives a violent involuntary twitch. We both jump, startled.
“Your legs,” she whispers, “do they give you much trouble?”
“No trouble,” I say quickly.
“No trouble,” she repeats. I look down and inhale sharply when I see that her hand is reaching out to touch my left leg. It quivers as her hand draws closer, and I feel my heart pounding against my chest. At that moment Eva bursts in with the main course and Mother yanks her hand away.
This time my quilt hides not only my legs, but also my erection.
The rest of dinner proceeds with polite conversation. I fill Mother in on bits and pieces of the last four years. She asks a few questions about Jennie, but mostly about her work and her family, all vague and impersonal. After we finish eating, she retires to her bedroom.
It is late, but I am not tired, so I wheel myself to the living room and turn on the television. I am flipping through channels when Gwen comes into the room. “How did dinner go?” she asks.
“All right,” I reply.
“You know, your mother misses you very much,” Gwen says. “She talks about you all the time.”
“Really?” I raise an eyebrow. “What does she say?”
“She feels that she wronged you,” Gwen says. “She thinks she drove you and your father away. She’s been trying to think of a way to make it up to you.”
“She hasn’t wronged me.”
“Of course she has, Eddie,” Gwen uses her scolding tone. I remember how Gwen acted as my mother’s substitute, while I always longed for the real thing. “But she’s sorry. And she really does love you.”
“She hates to see me like this though,” I gesture at my wheelchair.
“All she wants is to see you,” Gwen says.
I contemplate this as I flip through channels. I feel worn out before I find something acceptable to watch. I navigate through the living room toward the bathroom. I am relieved to find that the doorway is just barely wide enough to accommodate my wheelchair.
Although my penis seems to function relatively well in a sexual context, I have very little feeling in it and I am completely incontinent. I always have been. Some of my earliest memories are of Mother yelling at me because I wet my pants yet again. She was always trying to get me to use the potty, but she just couldn’t understand: I had absolutely no control over my bladder. She tried bribing me and punishing me, but nothing worked.
It’s hard for me to admit that I wore diapers until I was 17. When I grew out of the pampers, Gwen bought adult undergarments for me. I think my mother liked the fact that I had to wear diapers, because she knew they made me too embarrassed to want to leave the house. Before I went away to college, I saw a doctor for a requisite medical examination. When he saw I was still wearing diapers, he was shocked. He helped me learn how to use a condom catheter. It is an noninvasive catheter, which leads to a bag strapped to my crooked leg.
I now take a deep breath and pull the blanket off my legs. I have gotten used to the awful sight of them, but in my old home, they shock me once again. I feel disgusted. I don’t bother wearing pants, because it seems like there is no point, since I use the blanket and my legs are only about a foot long anyway. I wear boxers and that mostly covers them, also allowing me easy access to my legbag. Now I wish I wore pants.
I empty the bag of urine into the toilet and flush it down. For a moment, I allow myself to wonder what it is like to pee on my own, just as I’ve wondered what it’s like to walk on my own. I guess it’s something I’ll never know. Everyone walks around and takes it for granted, like walking is the easiest thing in the world. I am happy with my life, but I know I would give anything to be able to walk. Sometimes I think I would even give up Jennie.
I wheel myself out of the bathroom and to my bedroom. I am tired and looking forward to a good night’s rest. I plan to give Jennie a quick call before I go to sleep, just to let her know I’m all right. But when I enter my room, I am surprised to see my mother sitting on my bed, dressed in her nightgown. It’s a slinky number and I can see her nipples poking through.
Reflexively, I look down to make sure my blanket is in place. “Hello, Mother,” I say.
“Hi, Eddie.” She smiles at me, a little sadly. “I just wanted to tell you good night.”
“Oh,” I say, because I can’t think of anything else to say.
“You were in the bathroom,” she notes. “Are you able to…?”
My face flushes bright red. “I use a catheter.”
She is staring at my legs again. I feel very self-conscious. “Do you use your wheelchair all the time?” she asks.
“How else would I get around?” I answer with an indignant tone that rightfully belonged to Jennie.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” she says. “You’re still not a cripple.”
I frown at her. “What are you talking about?”
She leans forward, in a conspiratorial manner. “Oh, come on, Eddie. You’re not really disabled. Not like those other people. That’s not the way I raised you.”
I felt sick to my stomach. I had hoped that my mother had changed, but it was becoming clear that she was exactly the same as she had always been. “I’m a lot of things, Mother,” I say, trying to keep my voice controlled. “But I am disabled. I need a wheelchair in order to get around. I am handicapped. And you know what? There are a lot of intelligent, wonderful people out there who are handicapped, despite what you’d have me believe. I can’t believe my own mother can’t accept me in a wheelchair.”
She is quiet for a minute. Finally, she replies: “That’s not what I meant, Eddie.”
“You’re ashamed of me. We both know it.”
“I accept you in a wheelchair,” she says softly. “You’re my son.”
With those words, she stands up and gracefully slides out of the room. After she is gone, I realize that there are tears on my cheeks. I sit in my chair, unable to move enough to even call my wife for comfort. Jennie has always been a great source of comfort to me, especially when I felt that nobody accepted me in my chair, but now I knew there was nothing she could say to make me feel better.
I hear the voice from behind me and quickly wipe my cheeks off. I turn my chair around to face Gwen, who is holding a folded blanket.
“Hi Gwen,” I say.
“I thought you might want an extra blanket,” Gwen says, holding it out to me.
“Thanks.” I avoid her eyes when she places the blanket on the bed. I don’t want her to know I’ve been crying.
She stands awkwardly in front of the bed, eying me expectantly. “Do you…need any help?” she asks me.
My face flushes bright red. I have a sudden flashback to years of Gwen lifting me out of my bed every morning and placing me in my wheelchair, then putting me back in bed at night. Somehow it never occurred to me that I could do it myself until it was time to leave for college. In the weeks before I left for school, I practiced getting in and out of bed myself.
“I’m fine,” I tell Gwen.
“Okay,” she says with an understanding smile. She leaves quietly, shutting the door behind her. Only after she is gone do I feel comfortable bursting into tears.