Jennifer Dupree

These Things Happen

You ask to take a walk through the sleepy neighborhood behind the nursing home. I walk, you roll. I talk, you listen. The sun is warm, but not so hot that either of us is sweating. Not so hot that I worry you’ll get woozy. Like the time you denied it until I insisted we go into the over-chilled nursing home where you threw up and the nurse looked at me like I was irresponsible and I reminded her you can make your own decisions, even when I think they’re bad ones.

I remind her we’re just friends, as if there’s anything diminutive about friendship. What I mean is I’m not your caregiver, your Power of Attorney, your mother. You are your own person. We’re just two people who get along. Unlikely on the surface, maybe—you, in your fifties, me in my thirties. You, with Cerebral Palsy, talking with a communication device, navigating the streets in an electric wheelchair operated slowly with the use of one semi-able hand. Me, never having so much as a broken bone, talking almost constantly and gesturing wildly while I explain and interpret and consider out loud. Our friendship is based on what we have in common. Both raised Catholic by mothers who worried a lot. Both lovers of food. Both lovers of sun and heat, music (although you like Classic Country and I am an 80s Rock girl), puns, people-watching, dogs, and walks and rolls outside.

On this day, it’s bright and I’m not worried about anything. It’s a nice day, and there’s no one else out. A few distant cars, a few times I’ve nudged you away from the middle of the road or the soft sucking edge.

I’m talking and so at first I don’t see that the young, loping man who has come out of his house is heading toward us. From the corner of my eye, I notice him saunter down the pavers, through the overgrown shrubs, but I think he’s going to his car or the mailbox. His house is white, without shutters. There’s a dog barking somewhere, but not one I’m worried about. We like dogs, but sometimes they don’t know what to make of your chair. I fear having to kick a dog away one of these times.

It’s a quiet neighborhood. Mostly single-family homes, no McMansions, a few broken-down cars, a handful of garage doors that are always open and which we suspect are broken or left open for the cats. We have our favorite houses—the long, low green one, the yellow one with the tremendous garden, the brown one with the wreath on the door even though it’s July, the two-family with the nice lady who knew you from somewhere and often comes out to say hello. But we aren’t there yet. We’ve only just started.

We also haven’t reached the house where the car backed out of the driveway and hit you. That house is shaped liked a humped L and is white with black shutters. It’s just around the corner, but that’s no excuse. The old man in that house was sorry, sorry, sorry. He didn’t see you, he said. He didn’t admit that he didn’t look in his rearview, didn’t look over his shoulder. He said you weren’t there, and then you were. You cannot dart out. Darting is not something you have ever done.

He hit you with his car, but he didn’t run you over. To his credit, he stopped, got out, asked if you were okay. He interpreted your reaction as you being okay even though you were shaken, shaky, shook. He said, okay, I’ll leave you to it, and then he got in his car and drove away and did not make sure you were unshaky enough to get yourself back to the nursing home.

I wasn’t there the day you got hit by the car, but you showed me the house. I said, “At least he stopped.” You shook your head. “He didn’t stop?” You shook your head again, frustrated this time. I felt the tingle of anxiety I get when I misunderstand or fail to understand you. “He stopped,” I said, guessing, desperate to get it right. “But he didn’t wait with you or help you get home or call for help.” You made a noise between outrage and acquisition. I could tell by the way you nod that you’re glad I landed on this observation, that I successfully or nearly successfully articulated what you wanted to say. Your communication device doesn’t work in the sun, so at that moment, that was the best we could do.

When you got back to the nursing home that day, you told the nurse what happened and she filed a report. You showed the police the house where the man backed out and hit you. The man told the police he was sorry. They told him to be more careful, that it could have been a child he hit.

We can see the house of the man who hit you from where this other man is coming down the path—not to his car or mailbox, but to us, apparently. He is taller than I am, but not tall. He has a gray and brown beard, longish gray hair, dirty jeans, a t-shirt. He says, “Let me heal you.” He is talking to you.

There’s not really time for us to do anything. But that isn’t true. I could yell. I could tell him to go away. You could give me a wide-eyed plea and probably then I’d do something. Probably then I’d tell him we aren’t interested. I’d be polite and a little wimpy. I doubt I’d get into a discussion with him about the difference between illness and disability. I’ll tell myself and you later that I didn’t want to provoke someone who might be mentally unstable. You’ll agree I made the right decision.

You don’t move very quickly in the best of circumstances and in times like these, your muscles often refuse to budge at all. I could switch your chair to manual and skitter you away, but I don’t because I don’t think of it. I only ever put your chair in manual in emergencies—once when the fire alarm went off at a hockey game and you were so stiff with fear you couldn’t move and there was the very real threat people would stampede over you, and once when I got you stuck in the sand at the beach because we both thought you had enough traction and clearance and we were both wrong and it was only in manual that I could rock you back and forth until you were out of the deep sand. Here, on this deserted street, I stand beside you like I’ve become a stop sign. Only I haven’t because he doesn’t stop.

The man puts his hands on your head and mutters something—a prayer, probably—and then he touches your shoulders, your head again. You stay very still except for your eyes which slide toward me. I meet your gaze. You don’t make the noise you make when you’re angry or upset. You don’t make any noise at all. You don’t seem afraid as much as inconvenienced and so I relax a little. This is weird but not dangerous-weird. Not yet anyway. I worry he might kiss you because he puts his face close to yours, but he doesn’t. I’m so relieved that he doesn’t kiss you that my legs and brain go soft. “There,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say. And then, furious with myself, “No.” But he’s gone by then.

We stand and sit in the street under the hot sun. We wait for him to get all the way inside and close the door before we exhale. We look at each other again and your posture is the same—hand on the joystick that controls your chair, slight lean forward with a slump to the side. I make a joke about how you should be all better now. How you should be able to ditch the wheelchair. I feel like crying, but we laugh.

He could have done something much worse than put his hands on your head and muttered a few words. He could have had a knife. What could I have done to save you? To save us both?

Still, I won’t give in to the idea that it’s safer if you stay inside the confines of the nursing home.

We continue through the streets, up the hill, down the hill. I say, “That was weird.” You nod.

I realize only belatedly that you could have rolled over the guy’s foot. Or that you could have driven away. A quick turn to the side would have put him off balance, at the least. Although he likely would have stumbled along beside you, his hands on your head. I don’t ask you why you didn’t try to get away because I didn’t try to get you away and I’m the one with two working legs and working lungs. I didn’t do anything.

The nursing home is long, low, gray. It started out as one thing, and over the years has been added onto and onto so that it makes a jagged horseshoe. Back inside, you tell me it’s happened before, the healing, the laying on of hands.

“With that same guy?” I ask.

No, you say. Other people, other places, other times.

“People just touch you?”

Yes, you say.

I feel this viscerally, an itch in my skin, a heat. I shake my head, shake my hands. I’ve worked in customer-service for most of my career and people have occasionally touched me without my express consent—usually hugs, usually prefaced briefly by “Can I hug you?” followed immediately by the lunge forward. But I can back away. I can push. I can say “Not today, but thanks.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have told him to go away.”

You shake your head and I feel a little better until I realize you’re probably only saying that to make me feel better.

I experience the same kind of disorientation I felt when we went to a chain restaurant and the young hostess said she didn’t think your wheelchair would fit. She looked apologetic and then nervous when I asked for the manager. Or when we parked in a handicapped on-street parking spot, only to find the curb cut all the way up the street, so that you had to wheel into traffic. Or the time when the medical resident in the ER said she was surprised you were still alive, given your age and your disability. All those times, you made a little noise of disappointment, shook your head, looked at the sky as if asking for deliverance from a world full of idiots. Those times, I did better for you. I got us seated at the restaurant. I helped you write a letter to the city with the terrible curb cuts. I wrote my own letter to the hospital and read it to you. Those times, you thanked me, and I told you I was just doing what friends do. But those times were all after this day with the man and his hands on your head.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I’m sorry I didn’t tell the healing guy to back off. I’m sorry I didn’t scream. I’m sorry I was afraid I couldn’t protect you if we made him mad and he had a weapon, or no weapon except his hands and feet and teeth. I’m sorry I didn’t tell him you have a right to be asked before being touched. I’m sorry I can’t be with you all the time. I’m sorry you have a disability that makes it impossible for you to walk or talk or feed yourself and that many people see you as less than human because of it. I’m sorry they don’t take the time to know you better. I’m sorry you have carved patience like a shield.

These things happen, you say. This is just the way it is.

Not fair, I say. Not fair, not fair, not fair.

You roll your eyes. Fairness is often the least of your concerns.

Jennifer Dupree: I’m a librarian, freelance editor, and former independent bookstore owner. My stories have been published in Be Wilder: A Word Portland Anthology, The Master’s Review, The Lascaux Review, and other places. I have won a Maine Literary Award as well as the Writer’s Digest fiction contest. An excerpt from my novel-in-progress was published in Blue Moon Literary & Art Review. My novel, “The Miraculous Flight of Owen Leach” is forthcoming in 2022.