The car slowed, hesitating. Brake depressed, it idled, awaiting the driver to make a decision. Seconds passed, crawling toward the minute mark. She felt the pressure rise from inside, felt the tension knot in the center of her back. Stress leaked into her eyes, furrowing her brow. The decision wasn’t difficult.
It was dang difficult.
Make a decision. Just make one. Come on, Zoe. Choose.
She couldn’t. Two options lay ahead, and she couldn’t choose. She felt a vague, unsettled feeling claw its way up her spine. Panic set in, a frantic debate in her mind. Don’t do it. Don’t choose that spot. You can walk. You can walk today. Make the right choice.
She looked back and forth, weighing the decision, torn. To the right, four cars down, was a open, waiting space. If she chose that spot, it would take an additional fifty steps to reach the electronic, sliding doors of the grocery store. To the left, in the very first spot, was a blue, metal placard, the Universal image of a stick man with wheels painted across its surface.
Its sign declared, “Handicap Parking.”
The choice remained: right, or left?
Right, or left? she wondered, chewing her thumb, indecisive. It hadn’t been a difficult day. She had gotten up, made breakfast, answered emails, cleaned the bathroom, and gone into the office for a few hours. If she tallied her overall energy, the stamina left in exertion, she could make it through the store. Today was a better day. She knew that, because her days were quantified in good and better. Today wasn’t as good as three weeks ago, but it was better than last Tuesday. The age-old “on a scale of one to ten” didn’t apply to her needs, so she set her own rules. Her gauge, her calibration, was set on the premise of good and better.
Perhaps, just perhaps, today was a good day. But, an added fifty steps might change that. So, for right now, it was a better day. Which means, she concluded, that I can walk a few extra steps, and not opt for the lazy way out.
A horn blared from a car behind her. She hazarded a glance in the rearview, and watched an angry hand gesture in mad fury. Another bleat sounded, pushing her into action.
Make a decision, Zoe. Do it. Now!
There was a soft, aggravated groan as she pressed a foot to the gas. She passed the space on the right. It was only fair to allow the person behind her to claim that spot. She would take the closer space; the decision was made.
The person behind her, the crazy hand-waver, thanked her decision by screeching into the awaiting space. Patience was not a virtue in the midst of a grocery run. It always amazed her how much able-bodied people hurried. They always hurried. They rushed, they zoomed, they sped. She had learned a lot about human behavior when she was forced to slow down, and judge her moments in the good, and the better.
Although today, with a tight ball of tension sitting in her stomach, a forewarning of—what?—she wanted to zip, hurry, dash. She couldn’t, though. What she could do was walk, with sure footing, throughout the grocery store. That, in itself, caused another groan. The layout of Kroger ensured that shopper would walk every inch of the store. Had she not been searching for toilet paper, but other staples—such as bread and milk—she would walk from one end of the store, to the other. It was an inconsiderate, twisted joke. The simple fact that the milk was found at the very back of the store, and the bread in the first row, was sadistic. Grocery stores were, in her opinion, sadists, by nature. Sure, they could argue that the distance promoted exercise—but how cocky would that be? Not many people left without bread, milk, or both, therefore the trek through the display items, the brightly painted “fresh fruit” signs, and the rows of snack foods was a planned assault.
A deliberate, planned assault.
She understood the purpose, like every other consumer. The store wanted money. They needed money. By placing necessary household items at the greatest possible distance, they promoted the desire for random, impulsive purchases.
As a person who disliked the very act of walking, she didn’t appreciate the hike.
Reminded of the length of the store, she angled her car into the handicapped space. With a twist of the key, the engine was off, and she sat, alone, inside her vehicle. Maybe I should just leave, she mused. Back out of the spot, go home, and order pizza.
Pizza, unfortunately, wouldn’t solve the lack of toilet paper in her home. Her house was in desperate need of toilet paper. Yet another groan escaped. She steeled her resolve, and reached down, inside the driver’s side door. A neon blue, plastic placard emerged, emblazoned with a white, stick man, sitting on the presumption of a wheeled chair. She attached it to the rearview mirror, and watched it swing on its hook. Whenever she used the sign, it felt like she was cheating life. Not only did she cheat herself, but she cheated her body, and she cheated her mind. The blue placard, now motionless, was a constant reminder, a condemnation, a sham of her former life.
She hated it.
It took effort, pulling her eyes away from the sign. She wasn’t done glowering at its presence, or its meaning. It was a reminder of her disability—as if everyday movement wasn’t reminder enough.
The door to the car was pushed wide, a bonus to parking in the handicap spot. She swung her legs onto the pavement, and paused, psyching herself up for the inevitable. Her door was open, her feet were on the ground. Now she had to begin the process of moving. The thought depressed her. It made her want to swing her legs back into the car, ignite the engine, and peel away from the store.
Toilet paper, she reminded herself, chastising the side of her that wanted to give in, and give up. A sigh trickled out of her lips, trailing into the warm, still day. Reaching out, she grabbed leverage in the door, braced herself against the seat, and pushed herself into a standing position. Bone met bone, a crushing force. Pain seared through her hips, down her knees, and into her feet. It radiated in waves, maddening in strength, biting and gnawing from bone to muscle. Her legs shook with the effort it took to stand.
She gritted her teeth against the sensation, forced her eyes closed, and breathed. Now straight, she took one step, and then another. Friction ground through the tendons, searing, streaking, radiating. It was the third, and fourth step that calmed the kinks. A steady, constant throb was left in their wake.
It wasn’t enough for her body to reject the act of standing. It also needed to despise the act of walking, too.
Her bones were belligerent in their speech. They antagonized her with residual, shrapnel-like screams. She didn’t cave to the pressure, though. She wouldn’t allow the blinding, mind-numbing torment to cripple her. With all the abilities osteoarthritis had stolen from her, she still maintained her most precious commodity: her pride. When she stood, she stood tall. If she walked, she walked slow. She made sure her steps held purpose. Not one wrinkle of discomfort marred the junction between her brow, the curve of her lips, or the set of her jaw. Her face was composed, inscrutable.
Exactly as she wished.
The door to the car was shut, locked, and alarmed. Groceries didn’t buy themselves, a fact she was excruciatingly aware of, today. She counted the steps in her head, a trick to keep her mind on her current task. It was a trick that kept her from giving up. One step after another; one deliberate, pain-filled step following the next. One impassive, unmovable face negating the limitations placed on her body.
One, … two, … three, … four. In her dream the night before, she had run through a vast meadow. Racing through the tall, green grass, she laughed with vibrance. Light brown hair twinkled, swirled, and swayed in the breeze. It followed large, buoyant gallops, excited to lift, excited to billow. Her body was ecstatic at the prospect of being wild. In the midst of the dream, butterflies danced. They flew about her, glorious—bright bursts of delicate color. Near her feet, her leaping, soaring feet, bees zigzagged in pheromonal array. She was smiling, a wide, toothy grin, alight with happiness. She could move, and she was delighted.
A tall, skinny woman burst through her recollection, fluttering the air near her shoulder. Within inches of touching her, the woman shoved past, agitated.
I’m sorry, she berated, sneering at the woman’s back–not the least bit apologetic, was I moving to slow for you? Was my gimpness affecting your time? Did you really need to move that much faster than me, and almost crash into me, just to prove how irritated you are at my speed?
Bitterness filled her. The injustice of it all, the inconsiderate actions of others, the attitudes she received for just being her. She looked over her shoulder, stared across the parking lot, and glanced back toward the door.
What? she seethed, glaring daggers through the woman’s back, Was I taking up so much space in this empty parking lot, you needed to nearly knock me over in your haste?
Walking, jumping, leaping, bounding, sprinting, racing, tumbling, dancing, and springing were all adjectives her body wouldn’t allow, all actions her body rejected. Some days she yearned for the ability to twirl, hop, or gallop. Some days, she mourned the loss that arthritis had forced on her still youthful body.
Some days, she just wanted to walk fast.
But, she couldn’t. Those years were long passed, and the woman—that thoughtless woman—made the fact poignantly clear.
She bristled. She boiled. She stewed. Today was a bad idea, she thought, again. This was a bad idea. I should have just ordered pizza.
The idea was negated with a slight, shaking motion. Self-pity was not allowed. She would not allow her mind to feel sorry for her body. A good, hard wallow wouldn’t change her plight. It couldn’t change the hard of heart. People were insensitive. They were distracted. They were disinterested in humanity. Humans didn’t care about other humans, at least not anymore. She was always aware of the truth of that statement.
This was her life; this was the way she lived. Being angry, feeling upset, … it was all fruitless emotion, because people didn’t care.
They never cared.
It took twenty-three steps to walk from the handicapped spot into the air-conditioned building. Twenty-three mental reminders not to limp. Twenty-three admonishments not to grimace, hiss, or moan. Twenty-three instances in which she thought, I should have brought my cane. Why didn’t I bring my cane? When will I learn to always—always—pack that silly, stupid cane?
It wasn’t a stupid cane, though. It was support. It was stability. It was a functioning, pain-free, third leg. It was also a chip at her stubborn, willful pride, and it mocked her. Her cane was a constant reminder that, at thirty-two years old, her body was disintegrating. She lived as a geriatric patient in a thriving, fit, collagen-filled body, and the cane reminded her of that. It reminded her of failure, just like the shiny, blue placard hanging in her car’s rearview mirror.
Life was a cruel joke, and she was the punchline.
A short whisper of a smile touched her lips. Her thoughts were as disjointed as her legs. Humor, however, relieved the bitter resentment left in the woman’s stead. Her body may have failed her, but her mind remained sharp, ever resilient. Which was why she chose laughter over anger, every time. It kept her sane, it brought relief, it gave humor to her situation.
Grocery carts came into view, and she lumbered toward them. Lumber! she mused, lips lifted in sarcasm. There’s a good adjective. I lumber. I labor, plod, trudge, shuffle, and creak. I don’t run, skip, or bounce. I should have been shuffling in my dream last night, cane in hand. Silly, stupid dream. Catch up, subconscious! Meet reality.
Hand outstretched, she pulled a cart toward her. Don’t limp. Steady. Her face was, as always, emotionless. But, if anyone had been watching, her hands gave her away. They trembled with fear. They shook with uncertainty.
But, no one ever watched her hands, because no one ever cared.
Both hands, Zoe. Move slow. Do not limp.
Wheels were her downfall. They were her “tell.” Her legs couldn’t keep up with the quick, rolling motion. An object in motion tended to stay in motion, unless the object had creaking, disabled legs. However, if she leaned against it, using biceps and hips, the cart provided additional support. Some days, it even relieved pressure from her beleaguered joints.
“You!” a voice bellowed. It was hard, furious, loud. “You there!”
There was the thought that she should turn around, and stare at the voice, bemused. Several patrons milled around, sniffing flowers, grabbing baskets, and sampling pastries. Other people could have been the universal pronoun of which the mean voice referenced, but she knew. She knew the voice was for her. She also knew she would ignore it, because that voice wanted trouble.
This was a bad idea. The thought came, once more.
She wasn’t about to wait for the voice to become human. The longer she stood still, the more her joints ached. She had made it into the store, and positioned herself over the cart. Now she had to move. She was strong, but ever cautious, as she pushed the cart forward, measuring her steps.
Walking great distances took deliberate progress. It took vigilance. It took persistence. Hers was a movement steeped in patience, covered in time. She was the turtle, not the hare, and she was on her way. One, … Two, … Three, … Four.
Next up, toilet paper.
“Catch her! Somebody catch that woman!” the disembodied voice shrieked, panic lacing the tone. The voice had moved from furious, to downright hysterical. This was a woman’s voice.
Well, that solves my question. She wasn’t talking about me, she thought. Not one person on Earth, watching the snail’s pace that was her gait, could declare, with any form of honesty, that she needed to be caught before she could perform a heinous act. Molasses moved faster, in winter. An image burst into her mind of the brown, sticky goo, oozing its way across the surface of a table, dribbling off the ledge, puddling onto the floor, all before she could retrieve a paper towel, or clean up the spill.
As usual, her mind worked as a distraction from the pain. For now, it was working. The controlled lines of her face almost lifted into a smile. Almost.
A heavyset, borderline-obese woman pushed into her daydream. This woman wanted attention. Her attention. Turning her head, she gave it to the the woman. She didn’t bother to allow the question to form on her face, or even allow herself to lift a brow. Instead, she allowed herself to pause, cock her head, and peruse the reason she wasn’t still walking toward the toilet paper.
The clothes on the woman were ill-fitting, as if the amount of weight gained rose at such a high rate, the garments couldn’t keep up. Stretched across the fabric of a pink shirt were the words “Stage Manager.” The seams strained against their confines, bulging, precarious, with each upheaval of breath. Over an inch of the woman’s skin was bared. The white, pock-marked flesh poked out, gaping between t-shirt, and yoga pant. It wiggled; it jiggled—a disturbing sight she didn’t expect to witness within the confines of Kroger. Walmart, yes. Kroger, no. The woman’s hair was a blonde, spiky disaster, clipped back in a child’s barrette. A bright, ruddy flush covered her cheeks.
Funny, she thought, unamused. I would like to be noticed, too. For the right reason, though. Not because I lambasted my way into being seen, or because of my awkward clothing choice.
The woman—this woman—was the shrill accuser.
She was the accused.
Unsurprised, she realized she could see a woman like this accosting perfect strangers. The image seemed to fit. A headline stretched across her mind, declaring, “Obese Woman Confronts Gimp Female at Local Kroger.”
Yes, the image fit.
As if reading her thoughts, the corpulent being shoved a finger outward, stabbing just inches from her nose.
Seriously? she balked. Sure, great. Accost me when I can’t even take a step backward. It was yet another reminder of her limitations. Her legs didn’t move with precision, speed, or fluid grace. She was stuck, the woman’s thick finger filling her senses. It was a pungent odor of cheese puffs, pickles, and something oddly sweet. Chocolate. Cheese puffs, pickles, and chocolate. This woman smells like a walking movie theater. Gross.
It was such an offensive smell, she knew she might gag. Without creating a scene, without even thinking, she maneuvered the cart closer to her body, further steadying herself. The small, unconscious gesture coerced the pudgy, under-dressed woman to step away, and lower her hand.
Be nice, she rationalized, remembering past events. Be polite. Just get out of this. Understand, Zoe?
“Do you need something?” she asked, finagling a befuddled—yet friendly—tone. It was then that her mouth, and brain, detached. “Let me guess. Did I steal your favorite cart?” Sarcasm wasn’t her intent. It oozed out from previous encounters—encounters that began just like this. She knew her crime; she didn’t need to hear it. A response from the woman would only serve to solidify her disillusionment of mankind.
Instances like this calloused her with a sardonic view of justice.
Abled-bodied, swift moving, unafflicted people looked down on the crippled, the gimp, the handicapped. Those same, hurried people also created a world in which blue card, white stick figured, handicapped people fit a pretty mold. A neat, wheel-chaired, cane wielding, hampered box. Still, she wanted to hear the woman announce her crime.
The question made the already temperamental woman bristle. It also led the woman into a tirade. The expected tirade.
By now, she could repeat in her sleep.
This wasn’t the first time she’d been accosted, badgered, and threatened. She was only visible when people like this determined her relevance. They created her worth—and wanted her to suffer for their preconceived ideas.
I made the wrong choice. Twenty-three steps over fifty. I chose twenty-three steps, instead of fifty. That is my crime.
“How dare you! How dare you park in a spot assigned to people in need. What did you do, steal a Handicap sticker? Use your grandfather’s? You are the reason I don’t believe in the sanctity of the Handicap sticker any more.”
Placard, she amended, used to the ignorant slang. It annoyed her how the most self-righteous people were the most under informed. How hard was it to find the correct terminology, so as not to sound like a hillbilly? Also, why did she always have to steal her grandfather’s handicap placard? Why couldn’t it be her grandmother’s, father’s, mother’s, or uncle’s?
Screw it, she seethed, losing patience. Her legs ached with building pressure, and all she wanted was to buy toilet paper. She wouldn’t remain silent. Today, she was done.
“Placard,” she enunciated, unblinking. Her eyes bored into the accuser’s, daring her to speak again. Daring her to show her worth. Begging her to announce to all of the nosy, busy-bodied eavesdroppers how little she valued other people. People like her. People whose afflictions were silent, unnoticeable, but real. She refused to limp, grimace, whine, and cry, in order to appease this woman’s view of what “handicapped” truly meant. Because, that’s exactly what this woman’s obtuse diatribe whittled down to: her abject derision of humanity when it came to disabled people.
I wonder if I can tell this woman, “You have an abject derision for humanity when it comes to disabled people—people like me.” … Probably not. I’d have to find a dictionary, first. Wait, does Kroger sell dictionaries? If it does, maybe I can say what I’m thinking, she speculated. She knew she was tuning the woman out. She also knew she didn’t care about this woman’s insipid rant.
“Excuse me?” the woman blundered. Her ruddy face burst into various hues of red, saturating her cheeks in an explosion of color. “Did you just correct me? You’re doing something wrong, but you dared to correct me?” She flapped her hands out, seeking acceptance, help, or both from the group that now surrounded them. Several people showed the depth of their brains by murmuring “amen,” and nodding.
She snorted. She actually snorted. She’d never snorted before, so the reaction came as a jolt, a surprise, an out-of-body, “why is this happening,” response. During the woman’s rebuke, she hadn’t moved. She hadn’t shifted. Her knees ground together, settling into a ragged, locked position. Sharp spikes drilled into her hip bones, crushing her pelvis, eating holes into her femoral heads. Degenerative osteo-freaking-arthritis. She had to live with degenerative osteoarthritis, and this woman, this large beast, wanted to stand around, railing at her, for not being disabled enough.
“Just because you think I’ve done something wrong,” she began, speaking each word with the gentle precision she formed during every aching step she took throughout life, “just because you claim I’ve done something wrong, doesn’t mean I have done something wrong. If you’ll excuse me.” Dismissing the woman, needing to move her legs out of the stiff rods they’d become in the midst of this insanity, she steeled her arms, and pushed the cart forward. She took her first, rigid step, felt the bones pop, felt them creak, felt them grind into malleability. It was one of the next hundred steps she would take throughout her shopping excursion. And I talked myself into buying toilet paper. … This was a bad idea.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a manager shoving his way through the throng. Trepidation filled her. That fat woman would tell her story to the manager, who would try to calm her down. Managers always tried to calm her type down. When that didn’t work, her belligerent lecture would prompt the manager to, “Do something.”
“Do something” meant find her, question her, and hold her up—again. The worst part of dealing with these people, of pandering to their nonsense, was the dull, throbbing, constant pain. It never diminished. Standing served only to increase the discomfort. The stillness, the constant pressure, made her want to cry, or collapse to the floor.
Unfortunately, it was still taboo to pop a squat on worn, linoleum, public floors.
The woman had moved beyond livid, to irrational. Molten colors swept over every inch of her face. Unhappy at being dismissed, incensed at being spoken to in so curt a manner, she steamed, an engorged pressure cooker. Outrage in the woman simmered. It bubbled. It became a fast, turbulent explosion. The woman jerked, a sudden movement, and lurched forward.
Three steps. She had walked three steps away from the madness. Three steps away from the accusations. Three steps from that nasty, horrible woman.
… Three steps toward the toilet paper.
Three steps before the cart was wrenched out of her hands, pulled sideways, and pushed beyond reach. Having been in the middle of step number four, she lost her balance. Her hip moved in one direction, her knee in another.
Shit, she thought.
Instability was bad.
Instability caused pain.
The sudden loss of balance caused her to stumble forward. White-hot daggers shot down her lower extremities, streaking through muscle, bone, and tendon. Her joints responded by collapsing into each other, bringing waves of spasming agony. The pain made her falter. She took another, tripping step, trying to gain leverage in the floor. Her face, no longer placid, became a wide, open book of surprise, fear, and anguish.
That calm, steady mask crafted from resilient pride, was gone.
Eyes wide, mouth tight, panic ricocheting against the staccato in her chest, she tried to straighten. She tried to regain balance. Her body refused. Instead, it sent a scorching poker right through the center of her leg. She gasped then, a sharp, gurgling sound. Jutting her hands in front of her, she grasped, frantic, at air.
The explosion sounded in her head as her knees and palms smashed into the hard, tiled floor. No one else heard the sound—the cracking, splintering noise of decay when her knees hit the floor. None of those gleeful, praying spectators witnessed the bloom of color that filled her vision. No one but her. Her disability, like always, was a silent monster, judged harshly by the unseeing, uncaring voices of condemnation.
This time, she didn’t want to move. Not that she could, had it been her greatest wish. She couldn’t crawl into a deep, dark hole, or disappear. Her body wouldn’t let her. It needed time to absorb the shock, absorb the pain, absorb the new injury.
On hands and knees, she panted.
Time passed, a steady, infinite sound, following the beat of her heart. The woman was probably gone. Her fall might have been the justification the woman had been seeking. The crowd would have parted by now, bored with the direction, the lack of sufficient altercation. She wouldn’t look; she didn’t want to know.
I can crawl now, she decided. Enough time has passed. I can crawl, head down, all the way to the car. I’m already invisible. I can crawl to the car, drive home, and order pizza.
Step, clink! Step, clink! Step, clink! The tip of a cane, and a bright, orange, tennis shoe, walked into her line of sight, and stopped. “Can I help?” This voice didn’t hold anger. It was light, airy, benevolent. “Would you like some help standing up?”
The voice was gentle, nurturing, full of life.
“No,” she responded, churlish. Her voice choked on a sob. There it was—her pride. Always unnecessary, always inconvenient. “I can manage. I’m okay.”
The tip disappeared, and a purple cane, with wispy, white, floral designs, was placed near her head. “Well, then, if I can’t help you, will you allow Princess Pansy?” The soft voice carried on, conversational, ignoring the implication to leave. “I’ve found, over the years, that naming a cane makes her existence more real. She’s been given life. Her purpose is to serve, to help, and to be my constant companion. What did you name your cane?”
“My … ?” This woman was confusing her already dazed mind. She glanced up then, and met the helper’s stare. She knew. The woman knew. This stranger, this woman, saw her, and knew.
Astonished, she pushed backward, with focused intent, to sit on her rear end. Her knees griped at the awkward position. Her hips protested with an audible pop. Standing up, unsupported, was not an option. Even her pride knew that. A thought flew into her mind, lending humor to the situation, aiding in her resolve. Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!
But, she would get up. She could. With a trembling hand, she reached out, and grasped the cane. It was cold in her palm. Firm, but light. She could do this. She knew how to do this. Her own, currently unnamed cane, sat in the back of a closet at home. It held the current job title of Dust Collector. She didn’t want it to be her servant. She didn’t need it to be her companion.
… But, she did. Today, she did.
That nondescript, thirty dollar cane would have saved her today. From embarrassment, from confrontation, from unbearable, indescribable pain. Remembering the moments leading up to her fall, she hazarded a glance around the entrance of the store. The portly, spiky haired, mottled woman was trying to disappear, mouth agape with astonishment. The manager stood near, arms crossed, daring the accuser to walk away before they spoke. The crowd, still nearby, held an abashed air.
Minutes before, they were judge and jury. Now, they were ashamed. She almost felt bad for them. Almost.
Setting her feet down, flat, like she had learned, she positioned the cane as a lever. Inch by inch, foot by foot, she stood. Her knees creaked. Her hips popped. Every inch of her body hurt, worse than before. Worse than when she didn’t believe she could get out of the car.
Humor was there, tickling with feathery fingers. The situation was ironic. She hadn’t wanted to walk through the store. An odd premonition had warned, luring her with the open spot, four spaces down, on the right. The next time I decide to drive home, and order pizza, I won’t argue with myself, she lamented, wry mirth poking tender bruises.
Upright, balancing weight against the pretty, purple Pansy, she gazed at the woman who had offered a hand. The woman stood tall, brown haired, regal. Middle-aged, but youthful in appearance. Something about her exuded solid strength. But, there it was, … something in those wide, brown eyes. They bored into hers, crying out with empathy, tormented with silent affliction. They saw her, they knew her, they were her. Clear and bright, tinged with cloudy effort, those eyes recognized the effort of holding back, of not showing weakness, of not allowing pain to triumph.
The wide, toothy smile from her dream filled her features then, and she was reminded of running with butterflies, and dancing with bees. She was soothed through understanding, light with shared burden. Life resonated from her eyes, the bitterness seeping away. She sees me. She sees me, she knows me, and she cares. Today wasn’t a bad idea, after all.