When I was fresh off the streets and working at the coffee joint, I met this guy named Luke. I’m not sure how it really happened — either I was genuinely nice to him when he was on line to buy a cup of coffee, or he must have noticed my tattoos slipping out from under the long sleeves I was forced to wear by the dress code and sparked some quick discourse — but we ended up sitting around outside one day after my shift and bullshitting with one another. Luke was also covered in tattoos, but his were all very blackened and angry-looking, like they were carved into his flesh with stones and had soot rubbed into them to make them appear ancient and mystical. Luke was wearing a black skullcap and spoke like a stuttering machine gun with a Boston accent. Luke had a sketchbook with him, and it was overflowing with heavily-penciled, Giger-esque drawings of despair and anguish — the kind of drawings and scribblings you might find on a scratch pad used by a meth addict.
Luke was in a wheelchair.
Being polite, I didn’t see fit as to ask Luke what had landed him in the wheelchair. I just did what I normally did with people, and let them decide on their own what it was that they wanted to share with me. It took Luke all of fifteen minutes to turn himself loose and uncoil the story.
I have never been particularly adept at maintaining friendships with other boys/men. I’m not sure if this is a result of the awkward childhood I had or if it is a result of me paying attention to the stupid shit I have witnessed boys/men do time after time. I am much more apt to confide in a woman as a close ally than I am capable of spending anything longer than a few minutes listening to another boy/man bitch or gripe about his situation. Most of the time the types of boys/men that gravitate toward me are usually broken beyond repair and full of venom and anger toward anyone that they do not see when they look in the mirror.
From my experience, most boys/men are completely incapable of verbalizing their feelings without somehow pointing angry and crooked fingers at someone or some entity that they feel is to blame for their state of being.
“It’s not my fault” is almost always the first explanation.
“So, like, umm — how come you haven’t asked me yet why I’m in this chair?”
“Probably because it’s none of my business.”
“That’s a little weird. Most of the time the first thing people ask me about is how I ended up in the chair.”
“I can clearly see that you are in a wheelchair. I mean — it sounds to me like you want to tell me why you’re in the thing, so you might as well go ahead. I wasn’t going to ask because it is what it is — you’re in a wheelchair.”
“Yeah, man. It sucks being in this chair. A lot.”
“I’d imagine that it does.”
“You have no idea.”
“That’s true — I don’t.”
At this point, Luke had already smoked no less than three of my cigarettes and shown me his entire sketchbook full of demons and pain. It wasn’t that I didn’t care that he was in the wheelchair — it obviously sucked for him, as it would for anyone. I just didn’t feel the need to have someone unload whatever misery they had inside of themselves onto me at that point. I was miserable enough, and just coming off the streets and landing a job and all of that was the best thing I had going for me. I wanted to keep the positive energy flowing from the tap, not muddy it all up with someone else‘s trauma.
“I broke my spine and my neck in Hawaii a couple of years ago. I was on vacation with my girlfriend. We were living in San Francisco — Oakland — when it happened.”
I pushed the pack of smokes across the table toward him and took another drink from my coffee. I watched his hands tremble as he reached for the pack, and then watched as the tremors continued while he tried to light the smoke dangling from his lips. I fought off the urge to reach over and light it for him.
“I always promised her we would go to Hawaii, man. Fuck. I loved her so much. I had a ring with me to ask her to marry me and everything — saved up a ton of money to pay for the trip and pulled lots of extra shifts working as a carpenter. Have you ever loved someone so much that they just took over every part of your being?”
“I used to think that I had, but no — no I haven’t.”
Luke looks at me for a long pause and then his eyes start to well up, so he fumbles with his sunglasses and puts them back on. I can see my reflection in them — my bald pate glistening in the sun and the shadowy outline of the rest of me sitting in the chair across from him. As he gathers himself, I keep on thinking about his drawings and how much pain I could feel coming out of them. I don’t think I had ever seen anything so dark before in my entire life.
“We were having a great time. Sightseeing and all the shit that people do in Hawaii. We went hiking in this nature preserve and it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen, like a real rainforest out of a movie or something. I kept on thinking, ‘now is the time to ask her, you should do it now.’”
“Well? Did you ask her?”
Luke kind of let his head drop, with his chin almost resting on his chest. I sat and waited, taking notice of the size of his hands — they were as big as catcher’s mitts. His upper body and arms were obviously in excellent shape from being in the chair, but I was pretty sure this guy had always been someone who was in excellent shape. Probably blessed with one of those metabolisms that burned off whatever he put into himself within the hour. I took out another smoke and lit it up.
“I didn’t get a chance to ask her. That’s when the accident happened.”
“I just — we were standing on this cliff thing, overlooking a pool of water, and I felt so nervous and fucked up about asking her, so I decided to dive into the water, to cool myself down so I could do it.”
“Yeah. She told me that when I hit the water it sounded like a tree coming down or a car accident. Because we were in a remote area she had to scream and scream for help after she climbed down and pulled me out of that water. Someone ran and got the Park Ranger and he radioed for a helicopter to come and get me. The paramedics told her that I should’ve been dead.”
“I was in surgery for a long time — they had to re-break my spine because I had fused some of the vertebrae together when I hit the rocks. They did the thing where they drilled a halo into my head to keep my neck stable. They said I would probably never walk again even before they did the surgeries.”
There was a silence that hung in the air between us. I felt terrible for the guy, but this was exactly why I never asked anyone about any kind of affliction or malady — it always ended up embedding itself inside of me, and then I would start to feel so much shame for the ways in which I had wrecked and abused my own body, taking it for granted with all the stupid stunts and bullshit I had pulled over the years. We sat there in the stillness, with teens and soccer moms floating about us as peripheral ghosts — neither one of us making a sound, just smoking and waiting for the silence to end itself.
For a very brief period of time I dated a stripper. I met her one afternoon when I was supposed to be at work but decided that I needed to go somewhere and clear my head and be away from everyone else in the world. Whenever I needed to do that I almost always picked a strip club that was on the other side of town from where I lived. I could go in and sit at a table far away from the stage and everyone else, maybe have a couple of drinks and watch from afar as the girls worked the room and the stage. My mother had recently passed away, so the last thing in the world I wanted to do was be around people. Well — people who would want to talk to me or ask me how I was doing.
The cocktail waitress came over to me and asked me what I would like to drink and I told her I just wanted a ginger ale. She looked at me funny and then said there was a two drink minimum, so I told her to go on ahead and bring me two of them. She shimmied off toward the bar. There was a girl dancing on stage to a Scorpions song. There were maybe ten other patrons in the club. The doorman kept on looking over toward where I was sitting. I had, as usual, chosen a table far away from everyone else. The rest of the patrons were all lined up at the tables surrounding the stage. I didn’t want to associate with them, nor did I want to hear the lurid bullshit that would roll off of their tongues.
I turned my head from glaring across the room at the others to face the voice to my left. Standing before me was one of the dancers. She had long brown hair and a very white bikini. She shimmered under the ultra-violet light. Under that type of lighting, the whiteness screamed off of her bikini and made the rest of her appear almost an apparition. She smelled sweet from five feet away.
“Do you want a dance?”
“I’m sorry — not just yet. I kind of came in here to get some thinking time in, you know?”
“Thinking time? In here? You’re an odd one. What’s your name?”
“Hi Sean. I’m Amber. Can I sit here with you?”
“Of course you can, Amber. Nice to meet you.”
Amber and I started talking. She asked me a bunch of questions — what did I do for a living and all that regular stuff — and I answered her honestly. I didn’t even notice when the cocktail waitress came by and set down my drinks. When I noticed them on the table I offered one to Amber and she took it, smiling. I asked her some questions about herself — did she like this gig and things of that nature — and it seemed as though she answered them honestly. We were getting to know one another, and it felt pretty natural. Right as we both seemed to be feeling our connection, Amber got called to the stage by the DJ.
“I’ll be right back, Sean. Please don’t leave, okay?”
I nodded and watched her as she made her way to the stage.
After a little while had passed, Luke told me that his girlfriend — the woman he wanted to marry — had basically ran out on him after the first couple of months of his rehabilitation. She had started stealing his pain medications and had become hooked on the morphine the doctors had given him. When he confronted her about it, she freaked out and split, leaving him all alone and broke, with nobody to care for him. He didn’t want to go back to Boston to the family he had there, because like most men my age, he was the survivor of a really shitty childhood. He ended up reaching out to his doctors, and they told him about a program in Phoenix where a neurosurgeon was looking for patients willing to take a risk to get their ability to walk returned to them.
He was living in a nursing home and going to see the neurosurgeon at his clinic four days a week. He was on a ridiculous amount of medication — anti-seizure stuff and all of that — and wasn’t really supposed to be drinking coffee, but he felt like the littlest things he wanted were things he should have. As he told me all of this stuff, I watched his face change colors as if I were on acid. With each new set of problems he would share with me his brow would furrow and he would break out in little beads of sweat all over his face and arms.
“I came here because I had a shot to get up out of this chair, to maybe go and find her and get her back. That’s really all I have to live for, man. Just her. Other than that, I’m just living on borrowed time. I can roll this chair out into traffic and be done with all of it, just like that.”
I didn’t wait for Amber to come back. I took out a business card for some insurance agent I had been using and wrote my number on the back of it, and gave it to the cocktail waitress, telling her that Amber and I were talking about how she needed new car insurance. I figured it was worth a shot to get my number to her without pissing off the doorman or anyone else in the club. I walked out without even watching her on the stage — I didn’t want to see her like that, not after talking to her as openly as I had.
She called me a few hours later and told me her real name was Marísol. She told me that she was going to community college and studying to be a nurse. She asked me if I would meet her at a Denny’s over by her apartment to get some food and talk some more — she had studying to do and couldn‘t get any studying done where she lived because there were too many people living there.
I told her I would meet her there in one hour.
When I saw her sitting in the booth all by herself, surrounded by all of those books and papers, I found her to appear so tiny and childlike. In the darkness of the club she looked older and unobtainable. In the light of the dining area, she looked young and sweet. She looked up as I was walking over and her smile broke me into little shards. She started gathering up her mess and trying to organize it, to make some room.
“I’m so glad you came, Sean. I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
“I’ve been thinking about you too, Marísol. You sure have a lot of homework, don’t you?”
She smiled that smile again and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I asked the waiter for some coffee. Marísol just kept on sitting there, looking at me.
“You’re different, Sean. Why are you so different?”
“I’m not so sure that I am as different as you think I am. I’m just me, really.”
We went back and forth like that for a little while, like boxers feeling one another out in the first round, trying to look for holes in the defense. After a while of that, we ended up sharing things about ourselves. I told her that my mother had recently passed, and she told me about a little brother who was in prison for murder. She told me about her family’s struggle to keep all of her cousins out of gangs, and I told her about my troubles with my father. It seemed like both of us had a lot of hard-scrabble learning experiences under our belts. I looked toward the windows and saw that the sun was starting to rise.
“Marísol, the sun is coming up. Do you need me to drive you home?”
“I’d actually like it if you took me to your home, Sean. I know that sounds really forward, but — you know?”
I took her back to my apartment. We didn’t really say much more for a few hours.
Luke started showing up almost every day around the time my shift was ending. At first it didn’t really bother me — I kind of enjoyed getting to know him, as we had really similar backgrounds. Two kids who grew up all kinds of fucked up because of drugs, punk rock and the freedom we found in it, not to mention being spawned from awkward homes where we both had to learn how to take a punch or two. It wasn’t that I felt bad for Luke, either. After all the shit I had been through, I had started to come to the conclusion that The Universe didn’t test weak motherfuckers. I used to think The Universe did nothing but mold shit into champions, and a part of me felt like Luke and I were both sort of shit on our way to being champions.
One afternoon when my shift was about to end, one of my co-workers came to me to tell me that Luke was sitting outside at a table and crying. She had seen him pull a flask out of his little backpack and pour a bunch of booze into his coffee. I felt a little uneasy, because Luke had already told me about his drug problem he had to kick, and here he was getting his drink on in the middle of the day at the place I worked.
I was nervous, but as soon as my shift ended I went right over to where Luke was sitting and sat right the fuck down.
“Are you drinking, Luke?”
“Yeah, man. Shit’s getting kind of rough for me right now. They’re not sure if the therapy is working. I feel so fucked, Sean.”
“What are your options?”
“The doc says he is pretty sure that even if they changed all the medications, I would still end up not being able to walk under all of my own power again. I’ve been able to jiggle my leg a few times, and my toes have been able to wiggle. But this has been going on for almost a year now, and nothing is really progressing.”
I just sat and hung out with him as he poured his heart out. His sketchbook was on the table in front of him, and as usual it was overflowing with really dark energy. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it — the line-work was heavy-handed and full of implied violence and anger that just jumped off of the page and coiled around my heart. It was killing me to see Luke this way, even though I knew there was really nothing I could do.
“How could I have not seen the sign? Sean, the sign was fucking huge and when I think about it in my mind, I can see it as clear as day, ‘Caution: No Diving, Shallow Water.’”
I just sat there, paralyzed in my own way.
Marísol and I hung out a lot over the next few weeks. She worked the day shift at the club because they told her she wasn’t pretty enough to work at night — which was pretty much coded racism because she was Mexican. She didn’t mind though, because she preferred the much more easygoing daytime crowd. They tipped her well because she was more attractive than most of the other girls, plus she didn’t have to deal with getting groped and treated like shit by all the drunks that rolled in once the sun went down.
It made perfect sense to me.
Things were going pretty good for us until she found a small amount of heroin in my bathroom. It was in a little pillbox that I had forgotten about. I used to like to sprinkle a little bit of it into a bowl of pot before getting high, to combat my insomnia. I’m pretty sure that heroin was over a year old at the time she found it.
Needless to say, she was mortified at her discovery and it turned into a huge argument. She didn’t mind me smoking pot — in fact, a few times she had indulged with me — but the found artifact of my sordid drug past was something she was not going to be able to get beyond. She started marching around my apartment gathering up her things and cursing at me under her breath in Spanish. I asked her to reconsider, but she wasn’t having it.
“Heroin is fucked up, Sean. You know how many men in my family are in prison because of that shit? No. No way, Sean. I cannot be with someone who uses that shit. No.”
I asked her if she wanted me to drive her home, and she got even angrier with me and then stormed out of my apartment.
A few days later she left me a voicemail telling me all the reasons why it was better if we didn’t see one another any longer. This message contained quite a few things she had never mentioned before, but I figured that is what happens to people when they have time outside of the bubble to really think about and justify things.
I missed her.
“Luke — let me ask you a really personal question?”
“Anything, Sean. Ask away.”
“Does your dick still work?”
“Yeah, actually. Not all the time, though. It really freaked some of the nurses out at the home. Sometimes when they are helping me bathe I get a hard-on and they have to leave the room until I tell them it is gone.”
“Is that even normal for a spinal injury?”
“Nope. The doc says that is one of the things that keeps on giving him hope.”
“I have an idea, Luke.”
Because Luke had his chair, riding the city bus was always difficult for him. I decided that since I had just been paid, I was taking Luke to the strip club. There was one not too far from where we were, so I went inside and called us a cab to take us there. I rolled Luke over to the cab when it arrived, picked him up and scooted him into the back seat, and then folded up his chair and put it in the trunk. When I told the driver where we were going, he looked at me all kinds of funny in the rear-view mirror, but I didn’t care. I was going to get Luke a lap dance.
When we pulled up to the club — not the same club where I had met Marísol — the doorman actually came over and helped me get Luke out of the cab and into his wheelchair. When I tried to tip him he smirked at me and shook his head. As we went inside, the girl working the door refused to take my money for the cover — basically giving me the same look as the doorman and shaking her head as well.
As Luke and I went through the doors into the main area of the club, even though my eyes were adjusting to the UV lights and my senses were adjusting to the booming sound — I could still see everyone in the place turn and look at us. I didn’t fucking care at all. This was about Luke and not me. As stupid as it sounds, I just wanted my new friend to have one good day, to have a few hours where he didn’t have to think about anything at all.
“Sean, this is amazing. I can’t remember the last time I was in a place like this.”
When the cocktail waitress came around to ask us what we wanted, it took me a second for it to hit me.
It was Marísol.
“What are you doing here, Sean?”
“Hi. I brought my friend here to have a good time. I promise you I won’t be any trouble. How are you?”
“I’m good. Who is your friend?”
“This is Luke. Luke, this is —”
“Amber. My name is Amber. It’s very nice to meet you, Luke. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Yeah. A Jack and Coke.”
Marísol, realizing that Luke is in a wheelchair, puts her hand on my shoulder and leans in close to my ear. I can smell her sweetness and my mind jumps back in time, to dark and hushed nights.
“Is he okay to be here, Sean?”
“I think he needs to be here right now. He has had a rough road, you know?”
“I’ll let the girls know to take good care of him.”
“Thanks, Marísol — this means a lot to me.”
“Amber. You don’t get to call me Marísol anymore, remember?”
The night goes by in a blur. Luke gets treated like a conquering king by almost every single dancer. The manager of the club comes over to make sure he is having a good time, and then buys us a couple of rounds of drinks. He tells Luke about a cousin of his, paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. One of the dancers comes over with a pizza and sits in Luke’s lap, feeding him, his smile so big and wide I can see his insides shining.
Marísol, with her kindness radiating out of her, sits next to me and asks me what has been going on in my life. I tell her about recently being homeless, about getting my shit together, about trying to keep my head above water. She tells me she is almost done with nursing school, and she finally has her own place. She keeps on looking over at Luke and smiling. I start to tell her about Luke’s situation, about the neurosurgeon and the special program. She smiles.
“The world is very small and strange, Sean.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just got placed there. I start working there on Monday. I’ll be one of the nurses working with Luke.”
After that, Luke never really came around my job anymore.
A few weeks after he disappeared, one of my coworkers said he saw him on the bus, with a girl.
“You saw Luke? On the bus? With a girl?”
“Yeah. They said — ‘Tell Sean, Amber and Luke said thank you.’”