Taking Care

It’s been three days since she made the man leave, and she has decided she will go to the grocery store. 

This is partly because there’s barely any food in the house, just some Pop-Tarts and a bag of rice and some vegetables, optimistically purchased, now downy with mold. Mostly, though, it’s because she wants to do something entirely on her own, because she is fine. She will be fine, without the man. 

To get to the grocery store, she will need to take a bus. She looks it up, blows up the text on her screen so she can see the place she will need to get on, the time the bus will arrive, the number of stops she will need to wait before she gets off. 

She’s never taken a bus in this city before. She and the man moved here a month ago so she could attend the graduate program. They’d packed everything up and he’d driven them across so much flat, treeless space to get here. The man had kept his right hand on her knee for most of the drive, as if tethering her to him, and she’d felt like she was slipping forward, the road one long throat that was swallowing her down. 

Her friends had suggested she go without him. They’d invited her over for drinks, just her, which she knew he hated, because he assumed they talked about him. Which they did. Her friends handed her beers and said things like, Make a fresh start. And, We’re worried about you. You’re just not yourself with him. You know you’re not. Part of her knew this, or most of her, but she couldn’t say it. The last years had been a desperate campaign for her to show them the best sides of him. His artist’s eye, the way he smiled when it rained, the way he read the mail for her and rubbed her temples when she got headaches from trying to make out the words on screens, text enlarged and looming, waiting for her to struggle through it. How after she’d crashed her car into the guardrail two years ago, he’d come so fast, had talked to the officer while she knelt shivering on the shoulder, gravel burrowing into her skin. How he’d bundled her into the passenger seat and taken her home, told her she wouldn’t have to drive anymore because he would take her everywhere she needed to go for the rest of her life, and how she’d collapsed into the security of this. Her vision hadn’t been so bad then, just a little hole at the center that even the doctor said wouldn’t be an issue for driving until later, but there had been a moment, behind the wheel, when everything had turned grey, as if wiped away, and there had been no lane lines or road or anything at all, until she’d felt the shock in her body, and she knew it could have been so, so much worse than the inanimate metal that she’d nosed into. The man seemed to feel all of this rolling off her, didn’t make her speak about it, just kissed her above each of the eyes that had the disease inside of them, the disease that was taking more and more from her each day. 

What her friends had seen of the man, though, was how he was around them, around anyone but her, the way he always seemed to be somewhere different and darker, hardly speaking. When he did answer questions, he’d respond as if the questions were traps set for him that he had to tiptoe through. He hardly laughed, hardly smiled. This wasn’t what she wanted, she the sort of person who loves to be surrounded by friends, whose enjoyment hinges on those around her. When she went out with him, it was hard for her to not feel the magnetic tug of his discomfort, and when she went without him, it was with the understanding that he’d rather have her on the couch with him, enfolded and safe against him. And, when she got home, he’d want to hear about everything she’d done, moment to moment, and never seemed to entirely believe her, sometimes even accusing her of lying, of having been with some man, or some woman. That she was bisexual frightened him, the idea that she could be attracted to anyone, that the entirety of humankind was his competition, no matter how often she assured him that she thought only of him. Which, of course, she didn’t because no one could think of just one person, but still. She didn’t cheat, even if, on the bad nights, she really wanted to, and could have.

And then came the move, the new place. She started attending her courses. They were difficult, complex, requiring her to keep her mind bent to new ideas and concepts. She spent most of her time on campus, away from the man, at the little desk in her shared office listening to the computer voice through her headphones as it translated readings into her ears, she playing it back and back so she could memorize important parts to regurgitate in discussions later. She was afraid of letting her difference show, even more of letting it slow her down, making her less. Gradually, though, she began telling people about herself, starting with her professors, who put on serious faces and nodded, offered some changes that would help (like letting her have her laptop open during discussions) and some that wouldn’t (like hiring an undergraduate to read to her) that she politely declined. It was hard, drawing the line for people between what she could and couldn’t do. Still, they were kind, didn’t look at her with pity the way her boss had at her old job. 

Then the girl at the neighboring desk in the grad office suggested they get lunch at the noodle place, and she realized the menu was mounted high on the wall, impossible for her to read, and she had to explain. The girl said, No problem, and, smiling, recommended a few things she liked to order, said, If you want to talk more about your vision, that’s cool, and also no worries if you don’t. It was the perfect thing to say. 

 

She started feeling more confident to strike out on her own. Instead of letting the man drive her to campus, she insisted on walking. It was only two miles. Things were more pedestrian-friendly here, packed close and joined by wide sidewalks, unlike the town she’d come from that stretched and sprawled, built for cars. She listened to her phone tell her where to turn in her headphones, learned large features to mark her way—the columns of the town hall, the bar that piped 70’s rock into the street. 

She and the man fought about it. Why won’t you let me take care of you? His voice was quiet, miserable. Don’t you know how hard being here is for me? Don’t you want to spend more time together? 

I really like walking, she said. 

It’s always all about what you want, he said, and slammed himself into the spare room, away from her. This was her cue to give in, to open the door and apologize, to agree to whatever would make him happy, so he wouldn’t stay dark and distant. Part of her wanted so badly to make things right, to open him back up so she could lean into his chest, breathe in his sharp lime smell, run her hands through the hair he gelled up like David Tennant’s in Doctor Who. But he didn’t even like Doctor Who, not the way she did, anyway, just wanted to look like the fictional character she was a little in love with. Even this seemed cloying, now, somehow. The part of her that was getting stronger decided to leave him be, let him stay in the room alone. 

She realized, on her next walk home, how much she didn’t want to be around the man, how he would insist on her spending every moment at home touch-length of him, how he would ask, each time she left a room, even just to pee, where she was going, why she was trying to get away from him. How she had to convince him, over and over, that she wasn’t sneaking away, wasn’t hiding anything, that she loved him, she loved him, she loved him, needed, needed, needed him. 

But she didn’t. She could do things herself, she decided, as she passed a blast of “Stairway to Heaven” from the bar. She would do it. The lease was in her name and the rent paid for by her money, since he hadn’t gotten a job yet, hadn’t looked for one.  She could do it. 

 

It was nasty when she did it, ugly. He said things she wants to forget, about everything he’d done for her, sacrificed for her. He’d moved halfway across the country for her, for god’s sake, always made things easy and comfortable for her, provided for her, never thought of himself. She felt herself softening, wondering if she was making a terrible mistake, if she was as unkind and unfeeling as he said. And then, You’re not going to make it without me, he said, and that was when she opened the dresser (her dresser) and pulled out his socks and jeans and T-shirts with Futurama characters on them that she’d been pretending to like for years, piled them all on the floor at his feet. You need to go, she said, and, finally, he went. 

 

She makes her way to the intersection, and the bus pulls up a minute earlier than the internet had told her it would arrive. She takes this as a positive omen, that she’s fresh-starting beautifully. Later, she can tell her friends from her old town, send them pictures of what she’s bought to prove that she’s taking the breakup as well as they want her to be. She springs up the steps and hands the bus driver a twenty, since she has no idea how much the ride costs. He hesitates, the bill hovering between them, then sighs and places it in a machine next to him. Apparently, she should have seen to do this herself. His sigh is the kind she’s used to, when people who don’t know she can’t see well assume she’s being difficult or stupid. He hands her the ticket that sprouts from the top of the machine, and then there is a jangling eruption of change, which she manages to scoop up from the tray before it overflows. She shoves it into her purse and perches herself in a window seat. She won’t let herself feel embarrassed. She’s doing fine, is on her way, leans into the forward momentum of the bus. The motor revs and thrums, carrying through the soles of her feet and up her legs, and the sun plays warm across her face. She rehearses the stops in her mind, each name before hers. She’s prepared, has everything under control. 

She realizes, though, that the bus does not seem to announce the names of the stops aloud. She’d been counting on that, some sort of confirmation of where she is each time they judder to a halt. This was how things worked in other cities she’d visited. All there seems to be is a glowing display that is constantly scrolling, too small and too fast for her to read. No problem, though. She runs her fingers over the rough fuzz of the seat. She’ll just need to keep track of the number. Seven stops, from when she got on. Now six, now five, four. 

Out the window, though, things don’t seem quite right. The grocery store is in a busy area, with lots of traffic lights and converging streets. She remembers, from the trips she took with the man, him drumming his hands, impatient, as he waited for a green, then another, then another, swearing at the press of merging cars. Out the window, though, everything is becoming more open, greener. Fields skim by, punctuated by only a few squatting houses. Three stops, two. Something is definitely wrong. 

She launches herself up, swerves her way to the front against the bus’s motion, opens her mouth to speak to the driver, finds her voice missing. She tries again, says the name of the grocery store. Ain’t going there, he says. Wait, she says. Please. Sorry. Where are we going? 

He says some names of places she’s never heard of. 

Sorry, she says. I’m trying to get to the grocery store 

You got the wrong bus, lady. He brakes, stops to let a few people climb on, their conversation a stream of unconcerned words that seem to slap at her. She’s moving, then, jostling past them and out into the air, which she takes in desperate mouthfuls. Her face is very hot, and her ears, and she can feel sweat creeping out of her skin and lodging in her clothes. The wrong bus, the wrong place. Everything wrong. She is on some road by herself with a purse heavy with quarters and eyes that don’t work, that couldn’t even check the bus number before she gets on. How will she know how to get back? She should have just stayed on, waited for the inevitable circle-back of the route. It would have been slow, but a sure fix, with the driver to, however reluctantly, help her. But she’d let herself panic. 

There’s a little shelter, enclosed on three sides with glass, with a black bench hunched in the center. She sits on it. She’s sitting on some bench, alone, not buying vegetables that she would have totally eaten this time. She feels the rawness in her throat that precedes the kind of nasty, loud sobs that, when she gives herself over to them, chase each other in unstoppable waves. She chokes them down. She has to figure out what to do, because this is what her life needs to be, her taking charge without the man to fix things for her. 

The man. She could call him, right now. Her fingers itch towards her phone. It would be so easy. He’ll come, she knows. He always will, if she calls. He told her he was going to stay at a hotel in town for a few weeks while he sorts things out. As if he knew exactly this would happen, was ready for it. He’ll pull up, push the passenger door open, and she can climb in and things will just happen for her, easy as falling asleep. It scares her, how badly she wants to just give in, go back. The phone is in her hand now, ready. 

But she doesn’t call him. Instead, she calls the girl from her office.

The girl picks up on the first ring. I’m heading to my car now, she says. Take deep breaths. What we need to figure out is where you are. Go to the nearest intersection, and take a picture of the street sign, and text it to me. I’ll be there before you know it. 

She takes the picture, sends it. She breathes. Breathes and breathes and breathes. Time gets thick and sticky, sitting on the bench alone. She thinks about the man, about him shaving her legs, running the razor careful over her skin. About him snatching her phone from her, scrolling through her texts to see if she’s sleeping with anyone else, shouting some of the words he reads at her, accusing, using his arm like a guardrail against her, she colliding into it again and again. 

And then the hum of an approaching car, an SUV sliding up to her, the shunk of a door shutting. It’s the girl, moving towards her.  

She’s not great with faces until they’re really close, but she recognizes the shape and color, the tallness and the brown jacket. The girl rests a hand on her shoulder, then steers her, gently, into the car. 

When she feels like she can speak without crying from embarrassment or relief or both, she says, Thank you. It feels flat and inadequate, so she says it a few more times. 

The girl waves it away. Listen, the girl says. Anytime you need a ride. Or, like, anything. Call me. We gotta take care of each other. 

Thank you, she says, again, because that seems to be all that will come out. She’ll let the girl take her to the grocery store, this time, but the next time, she’ll make it on her own. She’ll learn to ask the bus number when she boards, keep her chin up against the looks she knows she must be getting, decide her inability to see these looks is a sort of protection. She’ll get used to other things, too, like using a magnifier to read her mail, snapping out voice commands to get her TV to play shows, asking cashiers to guide her through the steps on the tiny screens for how to pay, and falling asleep without the sound of the man’s snuffling breath. 

She’ll call the girl, too, will get better at asking. The girl, and the other friends she’ll make, will be solid and reliable and good to her. They won’t see need as a line, one that can be used to reel in, tighter and tighter. It would never even occur to them to love like this. She will be grateful for them, because there will always be things she can’t do, no matter how much she wants to be the one, now, driving away from the bus shelter, the one with the navigation pulled competently up on the dash, taking her in the right direction. 

 

 

Wendy Elizabeth Wallace (she/her) is a queer writer with vision loss. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and has now landed in Connecticut by way of Pennsylvania, Berlin, Heidelberg, and Indiana. She is the co-founding editor of Peatsmoke: A Literary Journal, and met the kind people who suffer through her rough drafts at the Purdue University MFA. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Carolina Quarterly, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, Necessary Fiction, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @WendyEWallace1 or at www.wendywallacewriter.com.

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