|Excerpts > Fall 2004|
Heaven, Man, Earth
Tom and Lisa were alone in the plush solarium when Kathy Sands came striding in. “Hot off the press,” she said, thrusting a brochure in Tom’s face. He took it without a smile and set it on his lap. On the home stretch of Rehab now, it was becoming harder to play the good patient–and it didn’t help that Kathy, the curriculum czar who ought to know better, was towering over him, the folds of her maroon skirt still splashing against his wheels, the smell of her favorite snack (overripe clementines) filling the scant air between them.
For a moment neither of them moved. Lisa, on the green velvet couch adjacent to his chair had her fingers laced together as if in prayer. Tom experimented, first touching the brochure, then lifting it two inches...four inches...waiting for Kathy to step back and sit... But she had turned her head toward Lisa–perhaps inquiring with her eyebrows about his foul mood.
“You’re in my light,” he said finally, though there was light everywhere.
Kathy retreated a yard but remained standing, her skirt swishing anew. He made a big noisy show of opening the brochure, then brought it to his nose. Fresh ink, all right. With a touch of fermented citrus.
For Level III Rehab alone, there were fourteen ridiculous courses from which he was to select three to accompany the ongoing vocational counseling and group therapy.
“How shall I decide!” Tom said, sighing lavishly, then shaking his head and closing his eyes.
Lisa shifted, reddened, tightened. Then, as she often did when embarrassed or mad, she removed the scrunchy thing holding her tidy pony tail, put it around her wrist, then gathered her hair again.
Just as well, Tom thought. She was finally catching on. No simple Mr. Nice Guy anymore, he’d changed on the inside too.
How shall I decide!
He squeezed his eyes tight against the feeling that wouldnt leave: This was as rehabilitated as he would ever be.
“Tom?” Lisa said gently, startling him.
His eyes slid past hers to the cheery quilt above the couch.
“I know,” he said with another sigh. “I ought to feel grateful. Grateful I’m still alive, and half of me works, and this, the Northeast’s classiest, most p.c. rehab center just happens to be near Hartford, and my old man’s insurance covers most of it.” He swallowed hard but the lump in his throat remained. “But really, my dears.” He brandished the brochure. “If you had to choose between—” he searched the list, “between...‘Wheelchair Basketball...’ ‘Jewelry-Making,’ and, and... ‘Flower Arranging!’ wouldn’t you be just beside yourself!”
The brochure slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor. A poor finale. He caught Kathy shooting Lisa the silent command not to pick it up.
“You don't have to decide, Mr. Pellegrino,” Kathy said, her voice all witchy sweetness. “That's three, you can take them all.”
“Oh, but I do,” he persisted as her booted feet headed for the door. “Because, I'm already set on,” he lowered his hand, reached down for the brochure, sped down the list. “On... ‘The Politics of Disability' and 'New Paths To Sexual Intimacy.’”
He still didn’t look at Lisa, but sensed her perking up. Kathy turned back, her head like an owl's, revolving too far. “In that case,” she said, “knowing you, Mr. Pellegrino–I’d go for the basketball.”
“You mean the wheelchair basketball.”
“Wheelchair basketball,” she repeated, before turning away again.
“Before you leave–” He hadn’t meant to sound so desperate. “Just tell me one thing.” He saw her flash Lisa a self-satisfied grin.
“Why don't they call it Wheelchair Jewelry Making? Why don't they call it Wheelchair Flower Arranging? Why don't they put fucking ‘Wheelchair,’ he grabbed hold of his own wheels and tipped back for emphasis, “before all twelve fucking choices?”
“That's a worthy suggestion, Mr. Pellegrino. I'll bring it up at team meeting!” And with that, Kathy spun her skirt and left.
How big and bright the room suddenly seemed, as Lisa rose from the couch and approached him with trembling lips. One arm raised, she was about to reach for his shoulder.
He swerved away.
Rowing! It came to Tom hours later when he was back home: the one option for which the "wheelchair" prefix would not have been appropriate. Five or six years ago, he had rowed on Trinitys JV team; had regularly seen those specially-designed sculls, watched a reedy woman wheel up to the dock and, with someones help, transfer down into one. Even so, he would not choose rowing now, a refusal that would bring his ever-patient mother to tears.
Nor was his father too happy when he wouldn't talk with the recruiter from some agency who wanted a consultant on the accessibility issue. Such a great oppor¬tunity for someone who would have gone to architecture school, had one of them accepted him.
Not that Tom blamed them, the schools. He had no “artistic vision.” That’s how Zoe put it, and it must have been true since he didn’t really know what the term meant. Zoe was his girlfriend before Lisa. He hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, but somehow she’d heard and sent a Hallmark Get Well card, of all the stupid things–not at all like Zoe who was so good at choosing her own words. Once when they were still in bed after what he’d thought their very best love-making, she made another of her declarations. “You’re very sweet. And you’re smart enough, Tommy, it’s not that.” She ran an electric blue fingernail down his cheek. “I guess it’s just that you have, you know, a thin inner life.” And then she kissed his ear.
Perhaps she’d like him better now? With his outer life so circumscribed, his inner life felt gargantuan. Monstrous, really. Lately when he wasn’t catatonic, he was engaging in some nasty little drama. His range surprised him. One minute he’d be parodying some old mafioso type; the next some pretentious Brit. Just beside yourself!
As for architecture school. That was Zoes idea. She convinced him that engineers were bores, and contractors like his father were crude and low class. Then she dumped him and transferred to Sarah Lawrence; he met Lisa, a better match. After graduation, he ended up doing construction anyway, working for his father, supposedly just until he figured out what was next. But in truth, construction suited him. He liked working outside, hauling and hoisting, climbing and balancing; liked measuring and eying that tiny bubble in the level; got off on the ragged beat of a bunch of guys hammering; liked watching the frame of someones house go up in a day.
That was then, this is now, Gary, his PT used to chant, as if he invented the adage himself. Quit comparing or you'll go bananas. Garys eyes were always moist but pitiless. Now, ten more pull-ups and then we'll test your evacuation skills.
No, he would not row crew, half tilt; wheel down a basketball court or around a construction site, craning his pale neck to see the guy on the roof, oblivious to all the astounding things his everyday body could do. Would notchoose New Paths to Sexual Intimacy, Wheelchair or notthe old paths had suited him fine. He said it just to see Lisa's expression. Probably he should up his dose of happy pills, but meanness was one of the few weapons left to him.
Small & Beautiful Flower Arrangements was the book Lisa left outside his parents’ front door. It pained him to have her loving him still, hanging in there long after he'd alienated everyone else. (His sister whom he barely talked to, though twice she’d driven up from Atlanta; his buddies from work who’d hauled him to movies and bars where he just drank and sulked; his cohorts at the Center who surely had him pegged as a snob and a stiff; not to mention his parents who couldn’t exactly abandon him but had become almost inured to the day-in day-out rudeness of him.) No, he did not like Lisa’s persistence, but what he liked even less was that she now seemed embarrassed by it–leaving the gift rather than confronting him herself. And clearly she’d gone out of her way to find the book, yet her note said, she “just happened to come across it in the used section of Tallie’s.” It said, “I thought it might come in handy for your course.” And it was signed simply “Lisa.”
But, even used, the book must have cost a lot. So many colored photos of small and beautiful arrangements: three fiddlehead ferns sprouting from a white china snail; floppy enoke-dake mushrooms in a stoneware sake cup. Who were these peopleauthor Marion, photographer Georgethat they had access to china snails, sake cups, sterling silver nut baskets! had houseguests to whom they served breakfast on a tray, blueberries in a white bowl next to a small jade vase with an arrangement of thistle, grass, purple loosestrife, and common persicaria? Of course the photos were posed, shot a million times; probably there was no houseguest, no breakfast of blueber¬ries, the jade vase was on loan; nevertheless, apparently there were people with the time and inclination to make these useless, diminutive arrange¬ments first and foremost to please themselvesas the author of the intro put it.
Tom's pleasures had always run more along the gross motor lines. To skeptics like him, the book offered advice: “To extract the keenest pleasure from small forms you must be able to diminish yourself...acquire the talent of shriveling ... walk, in spirit, under the tiny saxifrages, and shiver with alarm at their heavy weight of blossom...”
“Why not have an arrangement for the boat or for the car?” the author later asks. “Why not take a tiny vase on your next business trip and ... add a personal touch to a hotel room!”
Why not? Why not, indeed!
Tom pictured himself in his one good suit: stepping over dog shit in the vacant lot next to some turreted Sheraton; standing in front of the sparkling hotel sink, unwrapping a water glass, arranging a few sprigs of thistle and loosestrife.
He let the book drop to the floor.
Stepping over! Standing in front of!
He had gotten it wrong. Had just assumed the willowy woman in the chair was the flower-arranging teacherthe short, muscular, able-bodied man she often hung with, the karate teacher. Turned out it was the other way around. The paraplegic who was the karate master, the wrestler-type who was the flower arranger. Tom didn't recognize him at first, carrying a tray of tea and wearing a ridiculous-looking, wheat-colored silk kimono which exposed his hairy, bulbous calves with each smooth slippered step.
Cahill was his name. Chris, or Sensei, as some called him. After the tea, students watched as he slowly, silently made his ar¬range¬ment. If you could call it that. Just three stark branches rising as if from one stem. If you hadn't seen all the fingering and snipping and musing that went into it, you would have thought the thing was born that way. “Shin So Gyo,” Cahill proclaimed at the end, pointing to each branch. “Heaven, Man, Earth.”
Big deal, Tom thought. It looked stilted. Though he had to admit something about it was pleasingthe simplicity, the proportions maybe. A far cry from the splashy profusions that stunk up his room after the accident. (Nothing heroic or even freak about it: onemaybe two beers, and a slick, foggy road.) Neither was it much like the ¬minia¬tures in Lisa's book. The course description was misleading; this wasn't just flower arranging, this was Ikebana, the Japanese art of. No mere pleasing yourself here. Requiring decades of study, Ikebana was serious business, all rules and constraints. You had to use an odd number of stems. And only those found together in nature. And only in certain combinations and configurations. It's like haiku, Cahill said. You must learn to put all your feeling in a small space.
Tom moved his branches this way and that, then slammed them down on the table. No one seemed impressed. (There were about ten of them, women mostly–progressive diseases, a snowboarding accident, several car wrecks, and an elderly couple from the outside who just wanted to learn the stuff.) They all kept on with their fingering and snipping while he made a brief show of further mangling the woody stems, then spun his chair away from the table and spent the rest of the class staring out the window at the acres of soggy brown fields.
Next Thursday–same kimono, same tea, same format: Cahill demonstrated while the students reverently watched. This time, however, the Sensei spoke: "Now that you've read most of Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Flower Arranging his pause gently chastising the naughty ones who hadn't done their homework "–you know what I'm doing here, right? Checking for pliabili¬ty, for supple¬ness, and natural bent." His thick, immaculate grazed the shin branch. "And you know how important it is to do this gently, gently, so the plant suffers no pain..."
Later, as Cahill made his rounds, Tom fixed his eyes on the spiky pinholder they called , kenzo or "frog," imagined coming down hard on it with his palm, or pressing it deep into his numb thigh.
"Practice begins when student is ready," Cahill said, suddenly behind him. "As Herrigel says, 'Master must gain knowledge of student's character to help him with slow inward transformation. Only then can he go the flower's way.”
With that, Cahill put a hand on Tom's shoul¬der before moving on.
That night Tom skimmed through Herrigel (who wrote in perfect English), and found the phrase again: "The Master... can often read the student's character with uncanny accuracy; he molds the student until he can go the flower's way in his own life here and now."
Too bad they never explained what the flower’s way was.
In "Politics of Disability," Tom is lectured to by activists: one, a quad who can move only her right thumb; another, a fried man with half a face, a third of an arm, and a hole in his neck. Frequently, at the start of this session, Tom gets distracted by an image of his old, whole self bolting from the room . More than an image, a full-blown bodily feeling.
He breathes, and breathes to calm himself.
He hears Herrigel’s patient admission. "It is not easy to go the modest way of flowers from morning until evening!"
He feels Cahill’s hand on his shoulder, the heat lingering long after the Master has moved on.
Sometimes he is able to actually listen to what the speakers are saying. They call not for pity or the right to die but for respect and access. They insist that their problem is not their disability but the arrogance, pity or indifference they get from the so-called “able” folk. Tom doesn’t buy it, not completely. They’re courageous, he’ll admit, even moving. But that doesn't mean he wants to belong to their club.
In contrast, Cahill's classes are a breeze. Usually Tom makes a half-hearted effort for thirty seconds and then gives up and does nothing, while the Master gains more and more knowledge of his student's lousy character, yet divulges nothing. Today, however, the arrangement is the moribana cascade–one straight branch and two sharply bent ones, all in a shallow dish.
Jagged, unlovely, it snags Tom’s interest and he finds himself studying his branch of flowering quince. He notices which way the buds are facing, which shoots might be trimmed to create more space. He snips off two, three, four shoots–then his fingers hunt for the best place to exag¬gerate a bend. There he makes a decisive slant-wise slash.
Has he gone too deep?
No. Third try, he inserts a wooden wedge. Then begins the same routine with the flowerless branch, but Cahill's quietly approaching form breaks his concentration. At least the Master offers no com¬ment, no gloating or knowing look, and in seconds he is gone.
They are married, Tom has heard. Cahill and the karate teacher. The other day, through a window, Tom saw the two of them setting out somewhere, she in her spiffy red, thick-tired "mountain" chair. They paused for some reason, and she gazed up at him with a loving, almost stricken look.
Or maybe it was the other way around? Cahill looking down on her in that ecstatic way?
He's losing his mind. Can't remember; can conjure the image both ways. Back and forth, back and forthfor a moment, all Tom can see are these leaping glances. Reeling, panickyhe shakes out the image. Looks around the room. Most of their arrangements, all incredibly different, seem just about finished. And not half bad. Whereas hishis is nowhere yet. Defiantly, he grabs his third branchheaven! (Or is it earth?) Then switch¬es two of them around, rotates all three in his hand, inserts them into the frog, and puts the frog in the dish. Voila! He rolls back to get a better view.
Not exactly the flawlessly balanced thing he'd uncon¬sciously envi¬sioned. More like a tipsy trickster-sort–scrappy, and lively.
That night before bed, Tom looks through the stack of cards in his drawer. Among them is the one from Zoe. Not exactly a Get Well card, after all. Though store-bought, with a photograph of a sausage-shaped dog completely bound up in bandages, there’s no printed message, just her own arty left-handed script. “Hi Tom. Though we haven’t been in touch in a while, I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you with love. Yours, Zoe.”
There’s no return address, but the postmark is New Haven. He wonders if Zoe still shaves her legs but not her armpits; at first that grossed him out, but he discovered he enjoyed that pungent little shrub. He wonders if she still has that same silver ring in her navel? New Haven’s less than an hour away, and Zoe’s the kind who just might get a kick out of adding a cripple to her list–especially one whose dick is still working.
The dreams Tom has since he started on anti-depressants are generally tedious and meandering. Tonight, however, he has one that’s anything but.
They’re in a bedroom that has its own bathroom. He–his new self? his old?–he isn’t thinking about that, stretched out on the bed, waiting for her. She steps out of the bathroom–Lisa, surely–in a colorful kimono, her delicate features caked with make-up. Her hair is up–not back in a ponytail, but higher, in some sort of a bun. Now he pictures a chopstick in it, but that’s probably a waking addition. In any case, he doesn’t remember a scrunchy and there is nothing embarrassed or nervous about her as she approaches, and sits beside him on the bed. And runs her red fingernails through his hair. And then leans over to kiss him. She has Lisa’s same cinnamon breath, but there’s something eerie about the way she refuses to speak, something coldly professional about the way she teases him with her tongue. And all the moves seem to be up to her. But maybe that’s just because he is who he is now or worse, with hands that move but don’t seem to be able to do much. He keeps trying to grab hold of her kimono so he can open it and see a bare shoulder or breast, but each time he reaches, she manages to withdraw just enough. And then she is back, deftly opening each of his shirt buttons, then tracing his nipple with her tongue.
Now, his geisha, still fully clothed, takes hold of his belt and swings one of her legs over so she’s straddling him. She undoes his belt and works his pants and underwear over and past his ready cock. He touches her ass–it’s stronger than he remembers, and finally he’s able to hike up her kimono and touch her bare skin.
That’s when it happens, the part that jolts him awake: the legs are not hers, but thick and hairy with calves hard and round as onions.
Even a crip is entitled to a cold, Tom thinks, calling the Center early the next morning, telling them not to send the van. He has Group Therapy today, and can’t bear either of the two things that happen there–crying or laughing. (The humor among the world’s weirdos is surprisingly good.). Nor is he up for passing Cahill in the hall or cafeteria, and he’s in no mood to encounter Kathy Sands who may have already gotten wind of the “corner he turned” in his “journey” yesterday in Flower Arranging.
Tom’s father leaves the house at six, but his mother is there each morning and today when she stands behind his chair and feels his glands, it is all he can do not to whip around and slap her fleshy, heartbroken face.
“They don’t feel too bad,” she says coming round to face him, “but your eyes look a little red.”
She wants to skip work (she can since she helps his father in the office) but he tells her not to and she obeys, leaving cereal, milk, and a bowl out on the table with a glass of orange juice.
It takes him a long time to eat and put the milk in the fridge and bring the plates to the sink and shower and shit and shave and dress. It takes almost two hours, but still it’s only eleven o’clock and he’s almost wishing he’d gone to the Center. Even the freaks in Politics are more interesting than daytime t.v.
In truth, if it weren’t for the dream, he’d have called Lisa first thing, suggested they meet on her lunch hour. It’s Lisa , not Zoe he misses. He hasn’t seen her since that meeting about three weeks ago Never thanked her for the book. Still, he figures even a Level III crip is entitled to some bad behavior. After all, as Herrigel says, “It’s not easy to go the modest way of flowers from morning until evening.”
Careful to arrive before Lisa, Tom has had too much time to realize his ridiculousness–as if, if she didn't see him roll in she might forget! Too much time to observe normal cafe life and drink expensive coffeebathroom trips are no longer quick. Too much time to recall how hesitant she sounded on the phone, saying no to lunch, but then, out of guilt maybe, suggesting a coffee after work.
Now, when she finally strides in with a new haircut, short and stylish, his heart sinks. Feeling the still habitual urge to rise and greet her, and the even more familiar subsequent sock in the chest when he remembers, he wonders what made him think he could handle this.
She takes a seat. Looks nervous too. The same, other than the hair and something older and harder in her expression. Still, she’s wearing her short, green skirt and he can see that her legs are still slender and smooth.
“Thanks for coming,” he says.
“You’re welcome,” she says.
He sees his hand slapping her face. Just a flash, but it makes his eyes sting, as if she had slapped him.
Gone is his meanness, his theatrics, but that doesn't mean he feels like his old self–whoever he was; now it seems he never had reason to notice or ask. He feels like one of those impossibly intricate, tentatively glued model ships he once attempted with his dad. He feels headed for a crash.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"Doing this to myself," he mumbles into his cup. "Ruining everything for us."
What about for treating me like shit?"
“That, too,” he says, forcing himself to look at her above the rim of his cup. "I'm sorry."
She nods, unconvinced.
"Are you seeing someone," he asks.
"Not really," she says.
"It's okay," he says. "I understand."
"No you don't," she snaps.
The woman at the next table looks up from her book, then down again.
“Can we go somewhere else?” he says.
The waitress appears. "Just the check," he says, struggling to get to the bills in his pocket.
As he wheels down the skinny aisle behind Lisa, everyone stares, then turns abruptly away, just as they did when he wheeled in, but more so now that he's with a good-looking girl.
It's still light outside, though it's almost six. So many insults! Day, night, winter, spring–just as if nothing had changed.
He wheels into the alcove between a grocery and a yarn shop. Stops to zip up his jacket. "I want to touch you," he blurts.
"You are touching me," she says, not meanly, nodding to where his hand has grabbed hers. He reaches toward her face where a tear has begun to fall, but realizing it's too high, brings her hand to his own face. Bites gently into the fleshy part of her palm so he won't cry.
How foolish to have taken flower arrang¬ing instead of that New Paths course!
Still, he has a sense of it—the awk¬wardness, the excruci¬ating gentleness, as in their other first time. But no: That was then, this is now, he will have to tell himself again and again. And possibly, every¬thing that needs to happen will.
As if she can read his mind, she withdraws her hand, wipes her own tears. "I don't know who you are anymore. Or me either. I've changed, too."
It's true, he thinks. And it would be a relief, really, to just let it gohis instinct all along, and he never would have called except
"What do you think?" she snaps. "After the way you've treated me I'm going to jump right into bed with you?"
"No, no, of course not," he says, embarrassed. He grabs his wheels, forgetting he’s planted the brakes, but before he releases them, she sinks to her knees, buries her face in his thighs.
Funny, to see her there, but not really feel her weight–to see her tears, but not feel their wetness seeping through his jeans.
He rests his hand on her head, dares to run his fingers through her shorn hair. The pain of this surprises him: it’s his own tenderness as much as hers that he misses.
The next day, Politics Day, he still can’t face the Center, and although by now his mother has begun to look suspicious, she doesn’t dare say anything, just leaves out his cereal and milk and juice.
After breakfast, he picks up the phone and dials information. There’s a Zoe Mazur in New Haven. He calls the number, figuring she won’t be home at this hour. “We’re not in now–” a man’s voice says and Tom hangs up.
He showers, shaves, shits, dresses, leaves. The house's temporary ramp was made by his buddies from work. He doesn't know where hes going, doesnt know how far by chair anything is, but its better outside than in, sunny, finallythe crocuses decidedly out, the spring mud beginning to cake.
By the time he reaches the park, his neck aches as much as his arms, probably from keeping his eyes on the ground–so intent he is on not running into anyone he used to know.
"Park" isnt really the right word. A few old picnic tables and rusted barbecues in a littered, weedy expanse bordering the Connecticut River: one of the few places where the interstate doesn't wreck all access to it.
The place is as deserted as hed imaginedno rowers out, eitherand he wishes he had one of those mountain chairs that would glide right over the roots and stones and muddy spots that are making his trip so clumsy and slow.
Finally at the top of the short steep descent to the river's edge, Tom sets his brake. Tries to imagine the trip. Worst that could happen, he concludes–he'll fall in the icy water, pull himself out, and die there of expo¬sure. But a timid crip might as well be a dead one, he thinks, releasing the brake.
It’s over so quickly. As the chair begins its bumpy, jolting descent, there’s a moment of almost pleasurable terror, so pure and perfectly pitched compared to the tedious hum of fear he feels all the time. But then he pitches forward. There’s a stunning thud as his chest hits the ground. Who knows what happens to the chair. He’s probably dead anyway. But no, when he feels the cold slime and the pounding of his dogged heart, he knows he’s alive. And then his terror is anything pleasurable, as it occurs to him that he’s made himself into a quad.
But no, his head inches up, his hand touches his cheek. His fingertips, moving as well as they ever did, are covered with mud and blood.
Mud in the eyes, mud in the nose,
One of his first books.
He might be laughing, the whole scene so beyond pathetic, but for the memory of that kid trumpeting those wordshis sense of mastery, of endless possibilities.
He drops his head into the mud. A sob sputters out, and another, and a long howl, an animal sound Then abruptly the sounds stops.
What could he have been thinking?
He raises his head again, sees the chair near the river’s edge, facing up hill, lodged in the mud. He can crawl to it, no sweat, maybe even manage to get into it. But how will he ever get up the bank.
No kids, no dog-walkers, no rowers or boats of any kind.
He rolls himself onto his back, then up on his elbows, little by little, works himself back a few feet into the weeds where it’s dryer. There he rests for a minute, trying to think.
Better to forget the chair and somehow drag himself up the bank. But then what?
Hes not up for dying, hes surprisedabashed to discover, especially not up for a long, uncomfortable death from cold or hunger or thirst. But someone will be coming along soonits not like hes in some wilderness. If he dies, it will merely be from embarrassment. He starts grabbing at batches of stiff, spiky grass, and hurling them pathetically as he often did when some humiliation of youth put him in a rage. He tugs and flings and curses until he is spent. Or feels silly. Ormaybe its that something nabs his attention: the pretty bell-like blossoms on one of the weeds. They are dried, of course, buthe separates that stalk from the restremarkably whole and still slightly pink. He pulls up another bunch, retrieves a graceful, wispy thing and also a miniature fern. Moving the three around in his muddy fingers, he raises the wispy one, lowers the fern, not knowing hes looking for it until he finds it: a small, and beautiful arrangement.
These days, beautiful things make Tom wince; but for a moment now, before flinging it away, he is taken by it.