“Paralysis” By: John Tavares

Now Tad is a paraplegic, paralyzed from the lower chest down. When he contracts pneumonia or the flu, which afflicts him often, he is forced to eat and drink through a tube. When he is weak or ill, he whispers hoarsely into a microphone that recognizes his speech and displays his words on a computer monitor. He occasionally requires the use of a respirator, and controls his movement through a joystick on a self-propelled wheelchair. Sabrina, who is a nonverbal and hearing impaired, can read his lips and taught him the finer nuances of sign language. His partner is also the local chess champion and insists on marriage. He has done his best to discourage her desire to pursue marriage; he thought it best if they remained chess partners. Ironically, before he became a paraplegic, his mother had warned him about Sabrina.

Before he started work at the facility for the disabled, where she had worked previously, his mother also warned him that he would not last long as a developmental services worker because he was not pragmatic. He had high morals that, Emma thought, would eventually prove hypocritical, unrealistic, or Puritan.

“I’ve heard rumours some residents are abused, Mom, but I won’t tolerate mistreatment.”

“I’m warning you: You’ve too many principles. I can confirm some rumours; I’ve witnessed abuse myself.”

Emma, who helped him find work at the facility for the developmentally disabled, lit another cigarette and sipped her cognac. “I think you have too many principles to last long as a counselor.” Later, Emma told him she was not surprised when he felt he had no choice but to resign. He decided to attend college, left the residential facility after he had protested to the supervisor, who told him to shut up, and warned him of dire consequences. Then he spoke to an official from the provincial government and social services ministry. She listened to his reports about the mistreatment of the disabled clients, who were assaulted when the counselors became frustrated with them. He thought she dismissed his words as those of a disgruntled employee, but he learned later that she took notes, recorded their conversations, and reported to her superiors.

The superintendent took the timetable and crossed out the shifts he was scheduled to work when she discovered the group homes under her administration were under investigation by the ministry. Then, she summoned him to a meeting where silence and tension filled the room and accused him of having an affair with a co-worker, who taught him sign language. Sabrina liked to communicate her affection through touch, gesture, and physicality. She told him in sign language she had a crush on him, but he didn’t have the courage to tell her that he liked her as well. He was taken aback by her exceptional chess playing ability and mastery of sign language, since she had a sign for every expression, emotion, and state of mind. Although he expressed faith in logic and physics, he also believed she had the ability to read the minds of others and particularly his. Any affection he may have had for her, though, was drowned by the outrage and indignity he felt over the superintendent’s accusations. He was outraged when he heard the accusations she directed towards him, and he paced the floor and restlessly clenched his fists. Prepared to write his letter of resignation, he sat at his mother’s computer. He had just finished a first draft when she brought him a registered letter from the post office, and he read that his employment had been terminated.

“This is the work of Sabrina, isn’t it?” Emma demanded.

“Mom, she didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“You lost your job because of Sabrina, didn’t you?”

“Mom, please.”

“I’ve heard rumours about her: she’s smart and deaf, but she’s sexually promiscuous. She knows no bounds and has no scruples.” Emma donned her bifocal glasses, with horn-rimmed frames, which, she reminded him, had come back into fashion, and read the formal letter of dismissal. She waved the folded sheet, made from heavy stock paper, before she set it on the kitchen table and splashed cognac on it. “I heard she went down on a classmate in the detention room. The boy was blamed and she was treated leniently because she was deaf and dumb.” Emma tore the letter to shreds and dropped the torn papers in her ashtray over which she spilled some cognac. She lit a cigarette, dropped the match, and the cognac and the papers went up in flames. The fire detector buzzed loudly and she stood on a chair and disconnected the batteries from the wires. “I don’t know why they would even put a handicapped girl like her in high school.”

“All I can say, Mom, is Sabrina is a smart girl. She’s a chess master and knows sign language better than anybody.”

“I wouldn’t let her sign language give anyone the wrong impression. She’s a predator.”

“Mom, Sabrina is a warm person. She believes in the human touch.”

“And if you ever tried her human touch on a girl or a woman, you’d be charged with sexual assault. Remember that warning!”

Since he didn’t see a future for himself in Beaverbrooke as a counselor with the mentally disabled, he decided to move to Toronto from Northwestern Ontario.

Emma thought he was making a mistake. “You believe you’ll advance your career and social life by acquiring a university degree, but you’re probably better off taking a community college program through distance learning in town.”

Still, his mother talked to her brother and found him a place in the city to stay, a basement room in the suburbs, in North York, but she warned him and his uncle his chances of succeeding in the city were limited. “You’re not outgoing enough for Toronto,” she advised, “you’re too bookish and introverted.”

“So you need to be extroverted to succeed in Toronto?”

“I tried to make a career in a home for runaway girls and teen mothers in Toronto and it was all about connections and who was sleeping with who. Even lesbians discriminate, I hate to tell you.”

“Mom, you’re bringing me down. I’m disappointed.”

“It’s the truth about the city.”

A year after he started work as a counselor with the disabled, he moved from the town of Beaverbrooke. Working with the physically disabled and mentally challenged he learned many skills, including sign language that Sabrina had taught him. After he enrolled in courses at York University, he immersed himself in the lectures and tutorials on American literature, the emergence of the novel, literary nonfiction, sexuality in contemporary literature, and psychology in literature. After his tutorial in Psychopathology in Classic Literature, a statuesque professor took him aside and chatted with him in the hallway. He thought she was ready to accuse him of talking during the seminar or rip him apart for failing to correctly footnote his term paper. She strolled with him to a dimly lit corridor near her departmental office, bought a package of snacks from the vending machine in the concourse, and poured honey roasted peanuts in his sweaty palm. Feeling it wasn’t appropriate accepting peanuts from his professor he clenched the peanuts in his hand and later emptied them in the wastebasket.

She told him that she had a master’s degree in literature and a master’s degree in social work as well as a PhD in clinical psychology, so she was a qualified clinician. She appreciated his input and feedback during the lectures and tutorials, but it bothered her that he never spoke with his fellow students and that she always saw him alone. The first thing she noticed about him was that he didn’t have much in the way of a social contacts and connections and asked him if he was born and raised in the city. He tried to explain that he wasn’t that outgoing and from a small town in Northwestern Ontario.

“That explains it.” She asked him if he had a girlfriend, and he shrugged.

“What are your expectations? What are you career goals?” she demanded.

He told her he sensed great growth and potential in the city of Toronto, and he wanted to be a part of the burgeoning economy.

“That’s pretty vague.” Munching into a raisin bran muffin she bought from the coffee kiosk she revealed her tongue, her uvula, and her strong, well-formed teeth. She offered him a drink from her coffee. “I suppose a liberal arts education is to blame for part of your confusion, but what kind of career do you want?”

He wanted a house in the suburbs, with a carport, a motorcycle, and a view of the CN Tower.

“But don’t you want to be a real estate broker, or a teacher, or a small business owner—a career along those lines.”

“That sounds like a plan,” he agreed.

The professor urged him to see her for counselling. She wrote the name of a few university libraries on a pad of paper, with a letterhead advertisement for birth control pills, where Tad might find work as a clerk or assistant librarian and allowed him to use her name as a reference. Meanwhile, Tad dropped off his job applications and resumes at the offices of different businesses and organizations, banks, financial services companies, and governments throughout the city. His search for a job went badly. Tad was filled with disappointment and discouragement until he finally realized he had plenty of time on his hands, and he decided to make an appointment with the professor in her role as psychologist.

During several appointments, the professor interviewed him and told him what she thought. The problem, in her mind, was that Tad seemed to be a loner, or his lack of extroversion and his inability to make friends easily was a disadvantage and worked against him. Then the psychologist let her hair down, took off her round wire-rimmed spectacles, and leaned forward, so Tad had an unavoidable view of her cleavage and her large breasts, unrestrained by a bra.

“Now let me ask you: Do you have the thought, just the suggestion in your mind, that you wouldn’t mind reaching out for my breasts and touching them?”

Tad knitted and contorted his brow.

“Just the inkling of an idea?”

“I wish you wouldn’t put it that way,” Tad thought it would be safer to nod his head.

“Then you’re a normal young man. I think we can also say you’re not gay.”

The unusual part of his character was that he was a handsome young man, she said, but through his excessive devotion to books and his desire to advance intellectually he put off many interlocutors and potential suitors. She crossed her legs and adjusted her skirts so that he had a view of her long bare legs and thighs, slightly muscular from the kilometers. She found he had one great passion in life: reading. She told him she loved to read and to touch and be touched and her breast brushed his cheek. After that interview, he forgot to book another appointment with the secretary and, slightly overwhelmed, walked towards the subway station.

When he first arrived in Toronto, he noticed, whenever he felt anxious and worried about the direction his life was taking he would grab a pocket book, which he had bought from a thrift store or a second-hand bookstore, which contained some essays by John Stuart Mills, or Bertrand Russell. He’d take the bus to the subway station, reading the book and riding, until he felt relaxed and tranquil. Riding the subway from Islington station, on a roundabout trip through the Toronto Transit Commission subway system, after he had taken the southbound bus from Finch Avenue West, became his therapy. Many times, he was approached by security guards who inquired as to his business and destination. He would merely show them his monthly transit pass.

“But why are you taking so long to travel?”

The second security guard interjected. “You missed the major junctions and you’re taking the whole length of the loop, which must be the long way to wherever you’re headed.”

“I fell asleep—it’s been a long day and a long ride—and I missed my stop, but I’m turning back immediately.” After reassuring them, the transit security guards usually left him alone, allowing him to resume his commute, reading his philosophical pocketbooks, riding the subway train. Meanwhile, his mother ran up her telephone bill making long distance calls to him.

While he traveled the subway system, or eventually ended up heading home, westbound towards Islington Station, where he caught a bus to his uncle’s house in North York and his basement apartment, in between searching for work and taking courses at the university to advance his probability of being hired, he caught sight of somebody who looked familiar. He thought he recognized Sabrina, and he couldn’t understand what she was doing in the city. He found that he could ride the subway train from downtown, where he applied for work in the financial district, at banks, insurance companies, and government officers, to another in a day easily, managing to read at the same time at best a book a day.

During one stage of his unemployment, after he graduated from university, he even applied for work operating a subway train or working as a security guard; it seemed a perfect choice. After he filled out the application, he constantly inquired at the human resources office, but he received no call back. No human resources personnel expressed an interest in his application or resume. His mother, upon hearing of his disappointment, merely reminded him that he received an income that was far more than sufficient for him to live, that he lived in a comfortable apartment. Perhaps he should attempt to find fulfillment in hobbies like photography, reading, and writing.

As he continued to commute on the subway train in the evening to his apartment, a young woman would seek him out, but the best sort of response he seemed to manage was a tepid hello, or the first few lines of an awkward conversation, and she appeared speechless. Then when he spoke to her, he realized she was reading his lips and she responded in American Sign Language. He didn’t know how to react until he realized it was a prettified, citified version of Sabrina, who had abandoned plaid shirts, torn jeans, cut-offs, and hoodies. He realized that, yes, his initial instincts that young woman was Sabrina was true. As he rode the subway eastwards several times over the following weeks, he again recognized Sabrina. In fact, he realized he had seen Sabrina numerous times before riding the subway train westwards, hauling her laundry, or groceries, but he had difficulty believing his eyes. Oftentimes he would gaze at her and make conversation with her in the sign language she had taught him. He wasn’t certain that he wanted to get reacquainted with Sabrina, but she had even thrust a crumpled paper with her name and address in his pocket.

As he rode the subway train westwards, she offered a refresher course in ASL and once handed him a pocket book, a primer on sign language. He was grateful for the refresher course and learned several new signs as they were delayed on the subway train. They even played chess on a compact metal folding chessboard with pieces that had magnetic bases. She signed him she lived in a modern condominium in Mississauga, with a pool, wheelchair accessibility, and even a weight room. The rent was subsidized and during the day she worked as a sign language interpreter and instructor for the Toronto public school board at schools in the inner city. She even told him she could help him find a job at a group home in Mississauga, but, after his experience with a group home in Beaverbrooke, he wasn’t certain that he ever wanted to work in a group home again. She indicated in American Sign Language that she thought he would be back in his element, working with the disabled.

One hot summer night he was just dressed in shorts and a t-short and she wore a short skirt, halter top, and sandals; and he couldn’t help admiring her figure. Sabrina noticed he was admiring her long bare legs and shapely body in her summer dress. After another passenger got off at Islington Station they sat alone on the car of this subway train, and he agreed to ride with her to Kipling station where she would catch a bus to the boundary of Toronto and Mississauga. She crouched down beside him, resting her face in his lap, and started pleasuring him. He looked around the subway train, looking out the windows, but nobody could witness them. He had a beautiful young woman making oral love to him, but he felt an overwhelming sense of guilt at not deserving the gift of her pleasure. He felt as if he were exploiting her, even though she explained in sign language, and wrote on her notepad, that she was a mature woman, capable of her own judgement and making her own choices.

He pushed her away, forcefully, so her head knocked painfully against the backrest of the chair when she fell back. She had tears in her eyes when he saw her fly past the open doors up the escalator to the bus terminal. After the train arrived in Kennedy station, he ran to the other side of the platform so that he boarded the eastbound train in time. As he rode the subway train through the dark lonely night he felt tremendous guilt for having avoided her, and she seemed to be the one true chance that he had at forming a lasting bond, a true relationship.

Tad realized that Sabrina was precisely the type of woman he’d like to marry, despite whatever barriers of communication they might have between them, yet he had pushed her out of his life. He had never had oral sex performed on him, even though he thought it was an amazing thing and had desired it for the longest time. He vainly searched for the phone number, email address, and home address she had provided, failing to remember she had stuffed it into the breast pocket of his black denim jacket.

He could not locate her condominium or phone number and he did not see her riding the subway train again. They had both become casualties of the city, lost in the crowds and masses of the metropolis. He felt miserable and started reading The Bible, even though he considered himself either an agnostic or an atheist. Then, as he stood at the edge of the subway train platform in the same station where he had rebuffed Sabrina, he noticed the man who Sabrina described later on a paper napkin as his doppelganger. He physically resembled him and dressed similarly, wearing blue jeans, a black denim jacket, a blue t-shirt, and brown running shoes. He got close enough to him to notice he had a compact edition of the Book of Psalms, a tiny hardcover edition, with a lengthy and scholarly introduction in extremely fine print. He figured they had probably both bought the neat hardcover pocketbook from the same used bookstore on Yonge Street, in the discard and bargain bins, where stacks and stacks sold for fifty cents apiece. Smelling like spiced rum, unsteady on his feet, he was standing dangerously close to the edge of the subway tracks on the platform. As he heard the train roar closer he heard him muttering Psalm 23:4, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” If he hadn’t been in a similar frame of mind, he realized later, he might have never noticed the man in Islington subway station and would have been merely witness to a suicide or a suicide attempt, instead of a victim.

After he leapt from the subway platform into the path of the speeding subway train, which was braking to a stop, he jumped down and reached for him to help him back on the subway platform. He had practiced gymnastics in elementary school and high school, until female classmates teased him over his flexibility on the high beam, parallel bars, and over the vaulting horse. He was still nimble and quick, but he had not expected a physical struggle from the jumper. The subway train, braking to a screeching halt, struck them both. The last thing Tad remembered was the subway train driver’s blue eyes, permed blonde hair, thick cheeks, and poppy flower pinned to the lapel of her blue smock.

When he awoke in a hospital room, attached to tube and intravenous lines, a nurse informed him the man he had tried to save perished. He died not because of the trauma from the collision with the subway train on the tracks, but because he had also taken an overdose of prescription antidepressants, which he had washed down with liquor before he leapt. The tiny hardcover edition of the Psalms, undamaged except for a tiny bloodstain, was left on the nightstand beside his hospital bed.

When he asked for a drink, his voice was a growl, making a hoarse throaty vocalization, and the nurse expressed amazement he had regained consciousness. The nurse summoned the doctor who told him he was a paraplegic. Somehow, on that day he found the will to live through a determination to regain the use of his body.

Sabrina learned of his fate from his mother and visited him every day in Sunnybrook Hospital. She fed him chicken noodle soup through a straw. During the first several months, she helped him learn to communicate through the amplification and recognition system built into his voice box, which even displayed his words in the form of text messages on her smartphone. Since his mother was living in Northwestern Ontario and his uncle was welding pipelines through the oil sands in northern Alberta, Sabrina was the only person who visited him regularly.With the social worker, Sabrina helped Tad find a place to live, and he decided that staying with Sabrina was the wisest choice. When he was released from the hospital several months later, they moved into an apartment a few doors down from her original living quarters in the condominium and they even slept together. Eventually, Sabrina insisted on marriage, and he felt reluctant not to give his consent. It seemed the natural thing to do.

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