On one particular occasion, I had met a few seemingly nice guys who answered one of my ads, and after emailing back and forth for a week or two, I divulged my phone number to those who piqued my interest. Steve was the first one to call.
True to his word, my phone rang within a half hour. I noticed that the call came up blocked, but I answered it anyway. But after I said “Hello?” I was quickly annoyed.
“Uuuunnnh, hellllloooooo? Thisss is unnnhhhhhh Thteeeeeevveeee [slurpy intake].”
It may have been cute for a second, but after several minutes of me trying to carry on a conversation with him, I couldn’t get him to break out of this character.
“Look, call me back when you’re not going to talk like a retard,” I said. Sure, we had hit it off with alarming speed, but it was still soon for him to be prank calling me, I thought. Phone-sex on the first call is OK, but emulating Corky should be reserved for later encounters.
Steve called back a few minutes later and acted like nothing had happened. “Oh good, I see you’re speaking normally again,” I said with relief.
“What are you talking about?” he asked. And over and over again he gave me his pathetic denial. “I swear, I was talking to my sister this whole time.”
I started to get pissed off and then I realized, how typical. You think you meet someone good and then it quickly dissolves into a bucket of shit. But then something clicked in my mind and I urged him to recount his personal ad pertinents to me. And so he went through the details of where he lives, how old he is, and what he does for a living, adding in various hobbies and musical tastes along the way.
This is when it dawned on me that there was another Steve who answered my ad. Another Steve who had my phone number. And that particular Steve had mentioned in his emails to me that he was in a wheelchair. Because I’m presumptuous, I had imagined that he was in some sort of accident, and not handicapped because of some disease or infliction on his nervous system. Furthermore, what is that particular Steve really was retarded?
I quickly apologized to Steve #1 for accusing him of prank-calling me.
Steve #2 called me the next evening and I fumbled through a nervous apology to him too, begging him to forgive me for calling him retarded. He laughed, but he could have been crying; I couldn’t tell. I struggled through an awkward phone conversation with him, not really knowing what to say and being unable to interpret some of his responses; he had a very slow and thick slur. When he invited me out to dinner, I didn’t have the heart to say no. I had called him a retard, for Christ’s sake! The least I could do was grant him a dinner date. Would it be wrong to accept a free meal from a guy after I called him retarded? Not in my world.
But I wasn’t going by myself. I dragged my friend Keri along with me.
We arrived at Eat n’ Park and Steve was waiting inside with his dad. We all shook hands and introduced ourselves, all the while Keri tossed me sidelong glances. (I may or may not have filled her in on the extremity of Steve’s condition.) And then Steve’s dad said, “OK kids, you all have fun. Bye!” And he left.
He’s leaving?! I panicked inwardly. Steve was very crippled: he had a face that kept wanting to tuck itself into his chest, arthritic and gnarled hands, and arms that didn’t want to straighten. You leave me to my own devices with someone who has special needs and that’s as good as tucking a homemade bomb into my stretched out hands. I can’t even take care of myself. My napkin is shredded and twisted and saturated with ketchup before I’m even a quarter of the way through a meal.
So who was going to help Steve get to the table? Who was going to make sure he didn’t spill his Coke?
The three of us convened in a cumbersome huddle, looking stupidly at one another, before I finally snapped out of it. I took his wheelchair by the handles and began pushing him toward our booth. As I tried to position him as comfortably close to the end of the table as possible, I repeatedly banged his legs against the booth. I looked down to apologize, but he had his face upturned toward me, plastered with a puppyish grin.
While waiting for the food, small talk was made and we learned that Steve had some terrible nerve condition that was akin to cerebral palsy, and while it had no bearing on his mentality, it did impair his speech. He told us tales of his assisted living complex and started one about his imminent feet amputations, just as our food was slid onto the table. Yummy.
I watched in horror as Steve painfully tried to maneuver his hands around his burger, like lobster claws. He would occasionally use one hand to latch onto the sleeve of the opposite arm in an attempt to hoist the sandwich up to his mouth. I was frozen. What was the protocol here? Do I cut the burger into bite-sized morsels for him, or physically lift the burger to his awaiting chops? I felt like people at surrounding tables were watching in full-fledged “What will she do?” anticipation. I cast a desperate glance at Keri, who gave me a nonchalant “He’s your friend” shrug. So I dipped my napkin in water and dabbed at the ketchup and mustard smudges around his mouth before they became crusty.
In moments of utter discomfort, I don’t cry or sweat or swear; I laugh. And I laugh good and hard too. Of course, I’m smart enough to know that laughing at a handicapped man who has burger shrapnel all over his lap and face could be perceived as cruel and uncouth. It’s not that I found his condition to be a side-splitter, but I wanted to mask my trepidation and discomfort with laughter. So I started to make fun of Keri, and brutally so. This caused Steve to laugh and snort and spray our table with his half-swallowed sips of Coke. It went something like this:
“Hey Keri, remember when you were playing Truth or Dare—”
“Shut it, Erin.”
“—and you had to put that pickle—”
“That’s enough, Erin! OK!”
And so the evening advanced, with me ruminating over all of Keri’s past relationship foibles and peccadillos, while she hunkered down in her side of the booth, glowering at me. I knew I would have to deal with her wrath later, but it would be worth it; our night had regained normalcy. As much normalcy as it ever was going to achieve when one guy is in a wheelchair and the other two girls are like, “OMG he’s in a wheelchair.”
“Hey Keri, why don’t I give you a chance to push his chair?” I offered with faux-sincerity.
“Oh, thanks Erin, but really, I know how much you enjoyed it.”
“I would never be that selfish, Keri. Now hurry up and take those handles before I change my mind!”
She glared at me as she began to pull Steve away from the table. As she started down the aisle between the other diners, Steve began exuding a monotone moan.
“Uuuuuuunnnnnnnnnhhhhhh. Ooooooooooowwwwwwwwww uuunnnngggghhhh.”
Keri kept pushing his wheelchair along even though it was obvious something was catching. Steve was lurching forward as Keri was violently throwing herself against the back of the chair. “Why won’t this fucking chair roll?” she cursed.
I bent down and looked under the chair. “Jesus Christ, Keri, you’re wheeling it over his foot!” There it was, one limp leg bent back like it was made of rubber, with the foot hooked around a wheel.
Even after nearly receiving one of his amputations early, Steve paid for both Keri and me and said that he still wanted to hang out with me again. He invited me to his apartment. Again, I brought buffer, this time in the form of Janna.
We sat in my car in the parking lot outside of his building, and I concocted a plan. I liked Steve, I really did, but it was hard for me to be around him because I don’t have compassion programmed into me anywhere. I try to reach out and it comes off as forced and robotic. So I decided that I would have my boyfriend Jeff call Janna’s cell phone in approximately one half hour to forty-five minutes. We would then pretend like it was one of our friends with a dire vehicular emergency and therefore we would have to cut the visit short.
Steve had requested a lunch of Taco Bell. I tried to talk him out of it because I could only imagine the mess factor borne from the pairing of Steve and tacos, but the prospect of seven layer burrito got the best of me and so Janna and I arrived at his door with bags of steaming quasi-Mexican heartburn.
We sat around his dining room table and began to eat. I thought I would have been slightly desensified during the sequel to Steve’s dining skills, but it was still just as excruciating to witness. Janna sat with her burrito mid-air as she watched Steve repeatedly fashion a shovel from his hand and scoop up the fallen contents of his taco. Over and over again, he would attempt to take a bite and then plop, the taco’s intestines would come plummeting back to the table. I quickly went through my arsenal of napkins as I plucked stray lettuce shreds from his glasses and mopped up tiny pools of fire sauce from the floor around his seat.
By the time he managed to down one bite, I was just as caked with meat and beans as he was. It was like we had bear-hugged around a burrito. For the first time in my life, I was unable to finish my Taco Bell.
It’s just food, I reminded myself. It’s not even regurgitated. It’s cool; he can’t help it, I thought over and over again. But I had a rising lump of burrito in my throat and every time I looked in his direction, at the cheese dangling from his gnashing lips and the slivers of taco shell sticking to his chin, the lump threatened to re-acquaint itself with the world. I felt so ashamed that I couldn’t bring myself to help this poor man eat his taco.
Just as Janna was on the verge of the tears from intaking this harsh slice of life, her cell phone rang from within her purse.
“Oh! That is my….cell phone. No one…..ever calls me….on my….cell phone. I wonder…who it could….be,” she said in a foreign and mechanical voice akin to a computerized operator. I glanced behind me, trying to find the cue card she was reading from. Fuck, Janna — he’s handicapped, not retarded.
And so we told Steve that Keri had gone and broken down somewhere and we had to go help her. You know, me and my tow truck.
“Ooohhhh. Keri. The one who puuuuut the piccckkkle—-”
“Yep, that’s the one! That’s Keri!” And we laughed and talked of her big boobs for a few minutes before Janna and I grabbed our jackets and flew out the door.
And on the way home, I felt so riddled with guilt. I can remember crying about it when I was alone. This guy was so sweet and nice, but it was hard as hell for me to be around him.
However, not able to say no, I attended his New Year’s Eve party a few weeks later. I brought Janna and two other friends and it wasn’t so bad because some of his friends from his complex. That was fun, walking into his apartment and being greeted by a collective round of, “Uuuunnnnnhhh”s. To keep from laughing in their faces out of nervousness, I equated them with zombies. Because zombies are no laughing matter; zombies are scary. And then I comforted myself and dulled the awkwardness by hovering around the spread of food, where I could be found devouring mass quantities of Russian tea cakes.
His family was also there. Great, meeting the family on the third date? I better break this thing off before we end up betrothed, I thought to myself in a panic. But not before I eat some more cookies.
One of the more mentally-incapacitated of the bunch took a liking to Janna and that made for some good memories.
That was the last time I saw Steve. Things took a turn for the worst when he began sending me e-cards filled with animated roses and cupids. And then on one occasion, we had mixed our signals and I ended up meeting him one night at the wrong place, causing him to believe I had stood him up. He called me that night, bawling like a maniac on the phone (at least, I think he was crying. Sometimes when retarded people, or people who sound retarded, cry, it can be mistaken for laughter. I know this because I watched “Life Goes On.”) and accusing me of hating him.
For as cold and icy as I am, that broke my fucking heart. I had a quick glimpse of what it must feel like for a mother to unintentionally make her child cry. I couldn’t do it anymore.
I became the dick who stopped returning the handicapped man’s emails.