I wake up early the next morning, even without my alarm. I realize that I never called Jennie the night before and I feel guilty for it. She must be worried. Yet I can’t bring myself to call her now. I am ashamed at the events that have taken place since my arrival and I know she’ll hear the shame in my voice as soon as she picks up the phone.
I get into my wheelchair, having some amount of difficulty because I’m not used to the bed. I roll out of the room, through the dining room, and into the living area. I see my mother speaking to a distinguished-looking silver-haired man, who I instinctively dislike. She is using her usual flirtatious tone, touching his arm and giggling at his jokes.
Somehow I sense that this man isn’t meant to see me. I try to leave the room unnoticed, but my wheels squeak and they look up.
“Eddie!” Mother exclaims, her eyes wide. “Good morning. You’re up early…”
“Yeah,” I say lamely.
The silver-haired man looks at me curiously. “Who is this, Sylvia?”
Mother smiles thinly. “Henry, this is my son Eddie.”
It is painfully clear that Henry was unaware that my mother had a crippled son. It breaks his composure. He stares at me, not quite sure what to make of the whole situation. To a man like Henry, people like me with my crippled, deformed legs are a different species. We’re the underclass—people to look down upon.
“Hello, Eddie,” Henry says finally. “It’s nice to meet you.” I can hear in Henry’s voice the same intonation I’ve heard a hundred times before: the slow, enunciated words. Henry thinks that I am mentally retarded. Jennie would point out to me that I probably have a higher IQ than he does, but he’d never believe it.
The worst thing is that when somebody makes that assumption, I almost automatically become tongue-tied. I want to say something intelligent, so he’ll know I’m like him inside, but I just can’t do it. All I can manage is an awkward, “Hi.”
“Will you please excuse us, Eddie,” Mother says to me, taking Henry by the arm. I am simultaneously horrified and disgusted that she uses the same tone of voice that Henry did. In all my years living at home, she has never spoken to me as if I am retarded. I wonder who this man is that she would insult my dignity on his behalf. I want to yell at her as she pulls Henry into the other room, but my inhibitions stop me. I still can’t defy her.
I hear them speaking in hushed tones in the next room. I know I should leave, but I can’t pull myself away.
“Sylvia, that’s your son?”
“Yes, well, you know, we adopted him a number of years ago. Trying to give something back to society, you know?”
“That is so charitable! You have such a good heart, taking that poor boy into your home. Of course, I donate money to the cerebral palsy fund, but you go above and beyond, Sylvia.”
“Does he live with you?”
“No, he’s just visiting for now. He lives on his own.”
“Wow, it’s shocking how independent some of these people can be nowadays. But seriously, Sylvia, are you sure he’s okay? If something happened to him, you would be held liable. You do know that, don’t you?”
“Perhaps you might consider some sort of group home. One of those places where people with… learning disabilities live under nursing care. I could find out the name of a few good ones if you’d like.”
“No, that’s fine. You don’t have to do that, Henry.”
“It wouldn’t be a bother at all…”
“Really, it’s okay.”
“We could discuss it during dinner this Friday…”
“Yes, are you free?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Sylvia, you can’t possibly be busy every weekend. Please give me the pleasure of your company.”
“I have to go, Henry. I’ll talk to you another time.”
“Promise me you’ll think about going to dinner.”
“Yes, okay…I’ll think about it…”
I’m still in the room when my mother comes back in. She hesitates a moment as she realizes that I must have heard everything she had said to Henry. I want to hate her at that moment. I want to scream at her that she is a bad mother, but she looks so beautiful, that I freeze up again. She doesn’t offer me any sort of explanation or apology—she just walks away.
I hear a noise behind me. I turn my chair around to see Eva, the new housekeeper, tidying up the room. I watch her for a few seconds. She reminds me a lot of Gwen, only she is younger. She seems like a kind woman.
“Don’t mind me,” Eva says. “I’m just tidying up in here. Would you like me to make you some brunch?”
“That’s okay,” I say. “I’m not really hungry.”
Eva shakes her head. “I really don’t know what you’re doing here, Eddie. You should just leave.”
“Huh?” I look at her in surprise. None of the other servants have ever said anything so bold.
“She gave me the exact same line,” Eva explains. “She said you were her adopted son. That you were some kind of charity case. She didn’t tell me you were retarded, but she sure as hell implied it. Gwen told me everything, although I would have seen the resemblance a mile away. And I can tell just by looking at you that you’re no retard.”
“Listen, it doesn’t matter…” I murmur.
“Yeah, it does,” Eva says. “Gwen told me the way she treated you. You’re a good kid…you don’t deserve that. And now she’s acting like she wants to make it up to you, but it’s all lies. Nothing’s changed, Eddie. She sure as hell hasn’t changed. Although half the time she’s too drunk for it to matter.”
“I want to try to help her,” I say, although I realize how ridiculous it sounds when the words leave my mouth. How could I help her when all she wants is for me to be gone?
Eva shakes her head again. “You got a wife, Eddie? Go home to your wife. I hope to god she treats you better than Sylvia does.”
I know that Eva means well, but she hasn’t witnessed my relationship with my mother. Gwen would never tell me to go home, because she knows how much I love my mother, even after everything she has put me through. She is my mother, after all, and I know that deep down she cares about me. “She’s sick,” I say. “I can’t just abandon her.”
Eva laughs. “Sick? What gave you that idea?”
“From what Gwen told me,” Eva says, “your mother is quite good at handling her alcohol. Gwen says she hasn’t been sober in 25 years.”
The point that I am 25 years old does not escape me. “That’s not true.”
“Listen, Eddie,” Eva says, her voice taking on a more gentle tone, “I know you love your mother very much, but the truth is, she’s probably better off if you’re not here. I mean, you know how she is.”
Spoken so bluntly, I know that Eva’s words are true. I came here as a sort of missionary, maybe to make myself feel better or maybe just because I missed my mother so badly and I wanted an excuse to see her again, but in any case, I’m not what she needs. There is nothing that I can do for her.
I go back to my room to call Jennie. Even the thought of Jennie brings a smile to my face. I have no doubt in my mind that without her, I would be totally and utterly alone. Jennie and I met during our first semester of college. We shared a discussion section for a class in English Poetry. It was my first experience with other students, free from the cocoon of my private tutelage, and I was terrified. I never spoke except in monosyllables, and I knew my grade was suffering for it.
Jennie approached me one day after class and asked me if I had any sort of speech problem—she was worried that some sort of speech impediment I had was preventing me from participating, and offered to speak to the professor about it for me if that was the case. I told her that, no, I could speak fine. She told me that in that case, I should speak up more. Then she invited me to lunch.
Over the next year, Jennie and I became very close platonic friends. Jennie was the prototypical liberal coed, always fighting for one worthy cause or another. In a way, I believed that having a disabled best friend was part of the liberal image of herself that Jennie was trying to build. But I didn’t let it get to me—I loved having Jennie as my friend. She was quite beautiful and always had a boyfriend, but she was always loyal to me.
Of course, I was attracted to Jennie from the moment I first met her, but I didn’t let it go too far. Over the years, I had come to accept the fact that no woman would ever be attracted to me and my hideous legs. I thought of myself as somewhat asexual; I got erections sometimes, but I couldn’t maintain them and I was unable to masturbate because I had only a small amount of sensation in my penis. The best I could hope for with a girl was friendship.
I remember how one night Jennie started asking me if I ever had a girlfriend. That topic had been carefully avoided until now, but she suddenly seemed very interested. I told her that I didn’t and she asked me if I wanted one. I looked down at my crooked and deformed legs and didn’t know what to say. Before I could come up with an answer, Jennie was kissing me.
For a long time, kissing was as far as it ever went. Jennie was respectful of the blanket over my legs, and I was afraid of what would happen if I ever removed it. I told her that I didn’t think I would be able to have sex, although she seemed pretty sure I could. When I finally removed the blanket and showed her my legs, she couldn’t hide the disgust in her eyes. I thought for sure that it would end our relationship, but it didn’t. Somehow it only made us closer.
There was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted Jennie to be my wife. I had never loved any other woman besides my mother, and no other women had ever shown the slightest bit of interest in me. But I had my doubts that Jennie would want to marry me. She had experienced dating a cripple, but I couldn’t imagine she’d want to spend the rest of her life with me. I was almost shocked when she said yes. She even cried. So did I.
Jennie and I planned a small wedding and invited only our closest friends. I think that when we were declared man and wife was the happiest moment of my life. I could talk to Jennie about anything, but for some reason, I can’t talk to her about my mother.
Jennie answers the phone after one ring. “Eddie, I was so worried about you! What’s going on?”
“Nothing, everything’s fine,” I reassure her. “Mother sent a car to pick me up at the train station. It was fine.”
“You don’t sound good,” Jennie remarks knowingly.
“I, uh…I’m probably going to come home soon.”
“Oh, honey,” Jennie murmurs. “What happened?”
“It’s not a big deal,” I say, even though we both know that’s a lie. “I just feel like I’m not welcome here.”
“Eddie, you’re the most wonderful man I’ve ever met,” Jennie says, “and if she can’t appreciate that, then it’s her loss.”
“Come home, okay?”
I feel strangely empty when I hang up the phone. Usually Jennie’s words are enough to get me through almost anything, but this time I don’t feel any better.
For a moment, I imagine myself in another life. If Mother had gotten her way, I would never have gotten my wheelchair. I would have stayed in my room on the third floor, being carried by Gwen where I needed to go. I probably never would have gone away to college. Even now, at age 25, I’d still live in this house, trapped on the third floor.
And somehow the idea of it doesn’t seem so bad, because at least I’d be with her.
Mother is stretched out on the sofa, her eyes closed, holding a glass of wine in one hand. She has changed into a silk robe, which rides up her thigh, revealing the full length of her legs. It’s ironic that my mother should have such beautiful legs. When she was very young, she won a contest with her legs. In my opinion, she’d still win any contest.
“Mother,” I say. “I’m leaving now.”
She does not turn her head or even open her eyes. “Stay for dinner,” she says.
I don’t say anything. She slowly opens her eyes and looks at me. It’s true that she and I look alike, especially in the face. I know my face is good-looking, whatever that’s worth.
“Stay for dinner,” she says again.
“Okay,” I say.
I never could refuse my mother.
to be continued....