Blinders

Nafissa Thompson-Spires

This Todd


This Todd was going to be different because he didn�t insist that he was okay with his condition. He seethed, unapologetically, and he liked telling me how much he missed his legs, after a movie, before I climbed onto or off of his lap, whenever I saw him slumped in his chair and the mood was ripe for melancholy. He didn�t do any of that Pollyanna-before-the-fall stuff; he was Pollyanna right after the fall, and I liked that. He liked talking to me about it; he needed me to listen. My head filled the crook of his shoulder like a plinth for the Venus de Milo.

*

  The first Todd�s name was Brian, and I met him at the mechanic�s. I sat in one of those polyvinyl chairs waiting for these men, who pretended they weren�t talking down to me because they thought I knew nothing about cars, to fix whatever was wrong with my car and to change my oil, because a good way to make them think you know something about cars is to get your oil changed. The waiting area smelled of rubber and stale coffee, and to avoid the lady across from me who complained�to me and the television�about the president�s stance on women�s healthcare, I stared at the calves to my left. A purple rash carried itself up the Achilles tendons�and maybe lower, but I couldn�t see below the socks or sneakers�and then ended, like a farmer�s tan, right at the place where this guy�s shorts were hemmed, where his knees glinted the same brown as the rest of him.
  He used a cherrywood cane with an ebony fritz, beautiful materials. I hate those offensive people who�re all, �How did you become handicapped?� or �What�s wrong with you?� so I decided to make some small talk that might encourage him to voluntarily tell me about his condition. I still don�t know what to call any of these guys�differently abled, disabled, �gimps,� with an emphasis on re-appropriation�so I just call them all Todds because that makes sense to me. This Todd laughed when I told him his cane looked really expensive and asked if I could touch it. �What kind of icebreaker is that?� he said. Then he told me his name and that I had �no game.� His confidence surprised me, that he would speak to a girl clearly out of his league and assume that I was the one hitting on him.
  We talked until his car was ready. I liked the sinewy veins in his legs above the purple and the way his jaw clenched when he seemed to be thinking. His taupe eyes were rimmed with hazel. �I�ll call you,� he said, and I said, �Right� in my incredulous but still flirtatious voice. When he stood and applied pressure to the cane, I saw that he walked off balance, his torso rocking from side to side like the eyes on one of those Felix the Cat clocks. I prayed his phone would die and somehow lose my number, but when he called, I remembered why I had given it to him.

*

  When I picture this Todd�not Brian, but this Todd�he is always seated with his back to me, a slight cock to his neck, like he is looking upward, towards something better. His neckline is edged up so neatly, you would think someone used a straight razor instead of clippers.

*

  Dating a Todd wasn�t that weird. I mean, it took a lot of adjusting on my part at first. I hesitated about introducing him to my friends, in case they did something to make him feel alienated or special. My friends aren�t always as sensitive as I am. I considered arriving really early to everything so that Brian would already be seated and no one would see him hobble in, just to avoid the awkwardness, not because I was embarrassed. I resolved that there would be no dancing. Yes, his pants would cover the contusions, and he could probably make the sway look like swag if he stood in one spot. But at the time I worried about the stigma of the cane. Unless �Big Pimpin�� came on at the club�and why would it�the cane would be a dead giveaway.
  Everyone loved Brian, though, and I thought I did, too. We talked about regular grad-school things. He understood my sculptures and my latest montage, and I pretended to listen when he talked about normative whiteness and invisibility and cultural insensitivity. There was no paralysis to overcome. We parked easily when we carpooled to campus and enjoyed accelerated access to rides at Disneyland before they stopped letting people do that�because believe it or not, some people will fake a handicap to get advantages. People actually hired their own Todds to move through the lines. I got used to his wheelchair, which he used on extended trips, and navigating around it, leading him, pushing him. I liked watching him struggle to pull on the compression socks he wore to bed. I liked the way the �flesh color� of the heavy fabric contrasted against the shades of brown and bruising and swelling, like someone had stroked and wrenched and twisted the legs and squeezed the dark meat of them into pale casings. I tried to imagine rendering the image in sculpture, but could never settle on the right materials.

*

  Of course there were problems, with Brian. I tried to make myself available for him as much as possible, not just sexually, but emotionally. But he could never balance his optimism about himself with his need for help. He was always, like, �Kim, I really don�t need any help.� �Kim, my legs don�t define me.� �Please don�t introduce me that way, Kimmy.� �Kim, it�s like some kind of fetish for you.� �No, Kim, I don�t want to play candy stripper. No you can�t remove the bandages.�
  When he broke up with me, Brian said, �I don�t want to hurt your feelings, but you�re too clingy or something, you know. I like a girl who has her own thing going on.�
  I could do so much better than him, so I told him to get to stepping. I felt justified by the slight wince in his brow.

*

  I knew two weeks ago that this Todd�not Brian, the Todd I�m with now, who is this Todd�was planning to leave me. I could smell it in his kiss, because they say that�s where �it� is, and mostly because his mouth smelled like someone else. I�m not one of those women who would pleasebabybabydon�tgo or Iain�ttooproudtobeg(no). I am too valuable for all that. There�s this saying I say: �Love them where they can feel it. Hit them where it hurts.�

*

  The second Todd I met on the bus, and he�s a little crazy, so I�ll call him Jamal to protect my identity. And for full disclosure, I didn�t exactly need to ride the bus because my car was fine by then, but I wanted to, occasionally, just to see what was on it. I sat in the front, near the handicap seats. I noticed his arms first, dark and ripped, contrasting against his green tank top. Then I noticed the walk. He had sort of limped onto the bus, and you could tell it wasn�t an injury sort of limp, but more like a stiff gait, like he dragged his legs behind him, like Igor upright. His legs seemed especially thin, even in the jeans, child�s limbs playing dress up in a man�s pants. He wore oversized headphones and insisted on standing the entire ride, even when I motioned that he could take the empty seat next to me. I thought that maybe he liked forcing himself to stand to build his leg strength, but I learned later that he just wanted to show off his arms by keeping them flexed as he gripped the bus handle. He nodded acknowledgement of me in between bobbing his head to a beat, and I tried not to stare at the too-big jeans or overcompensating arms. I imagined under those jeans a stump, prosthetics, skeletal underdeveloped legs with burns so bad the skin had turned to bark that would flake off with rubbing.

*

  This Todd had overdeveloped arms, too, and when he was in a playful mood, he could lift me at least two inches off his lap with one hand.

*

  Jamal�s legs were like nothing I�d ever seen before, like Slim Jim jerky sticks on a wide torso, a G.I Joe action figure ripped apart and scrunched onto Barbie�s pins.

*

  �This is becoming, like, a thing for you,� Chelsea said the night after she met Jamal.
  �What is?�
  �Don�t play. These guys,� she flicked her outdated Aaliyah bangs away from her eye.
  �It�s not a thing,� I said.
  �At least they�ve been hot so far.�
  �What else would they be?�
  She rolled the eye I could see. �But it�s kinda weird, girl. You know it is, like it�s becoming your thing.�
  Chelsea worked as a nurse and had improved her figure in the past two years, but she continued to date a string of fake thugs, all of them rehearsed just enough to be ghetto but thoroughly un-frightening, all of them spending new money of questionable sources on things that don�t matter. �Who�s talking?� I said. �And it�s not a thing. It�s just�you know how some dogs eat cheese and others are lactose intolerant? Or how John Mayer loves the whole rainbow but can only sleep with women who aren�t black? It�s like that.� It was Brian who taught me that part about John Mayer, the white normativity thing.
  �You�re not fooling anybody. If you�ve got a thing, you�ve got a thing. Just admit it. You always like to be the one in control.�
  �That�s bull. Shut up,� I said.

*

  I broke up with Jamal the day he looked like he was going to put his hands on me. We had argued at his place over his unwillingness to use his wheelchair all the time. �But don�t you feel self-conscious, always limping so slowly behind me?� I asked as gently as I could.
  I can�t say for sure if he would have hit me, but I sensed his hand reaching for my neck. I could have gone all Wynona on him and pushed him and his wheelchair off the porch and said, �Come and git me, then, gimpy boy.� Or I could have done a Burning Bed kind of thing and burned his bed, or did a Misery on him and hacked away until he had no working limbs to ever try to lay on me again. But instead, I ran to my car, broke up with him over the phone later that night, told him his marionette legs disgusted me, and blocked his number.

*

  Forgive me if the story is choppy, but I will say that all the stress with this Todd actually made me more productive, for a time. In the two weeks while I waited to hear from him, my sculpture and carving never looked better. I now know how Geppetto must have felt, chipping away in his workshop, his little cat Figaro admiring him from below, licking at sawdust, dodging shreds and shavings.
  This Todd was Chelsea�s �special friend� on the side when we were in undergrad, and I don�t want to say she�s a gold digger, but he bought her a lot of nice handbags and shoes and took her to the Ivy, and drove a Beamer even after it was too small to accommodate his wheelchair, yet she didn�t call him her man. I�d known him before his tour in Afghanistan and never thought twice about him, although I regarded him as kind and not unattractive. He came back sullen, less willing to dole out his disability checks on Chelsea than he�d been willing to use his parents� money before.
  He looked so bronzed and stately that day we double dated for dinner, before Chelsea broke up with him, before Jamal broke up with me. I�m not talking FDR in his chair, but London Paralympics, golden man, erect. My own personal Jimmy Brooks, my own Lieutenant Dan. He wore jeans with the legs hemmed to cover the nubs of his knees, his body bulky, even with the missing parts.
  I was never after Todd�s money. I was wrong to imagine clean cuts, the skin on the stumps like French-polished walnut. It looked more like the thread of a baseball caked with clay and burnished dark, textured.

*

  I�m trying to put this together the best way I can. The thing is, if this Todd could have just gotten used to things, learned to see the world in a slightly different way, seen a counselor to help him deal with his condition, we�d have been fine. If he�d actually applied for those grad programs in Disability Studies or something or if he�d had more to do than think about our relationship, we would have made it.
  Todd got really mad at me, completely overreacted one day at Venice Beach, and it was the beginning of the end. A few weeks before, he said he didn�t think we should move in together, yet. I noticed the wide space between together and yet.
  He hadn�t been to Venice since before his second tour, and it was one of those days when the beach is so cold, all you want to do is sit close to someone and build a bonfire and make your own humidity.
  When he was a kid, Todd�s dad would take him to Venice a couple of times a month to watch the street performers and ride the Ferris wheel. Todd grew up near Huntington Beach, but his dad preferred to be at Venice, �where all the color is.� They�d get hot dogs with extra onions and mustard and eat them while they walked along the shore.
  I�d wanted to surprise him, make him feel better after the problems we�d been having, but before we even reached the exit on the 10, he guessed where we were going.
  �Babe, what are you doing?� He placed his palm over my knuckle as I shifted gears and merged right.
  �We�ll just have a nice day, walk around.� I stifled the urge to correct myself. None of the Todds liked when I did that.
  �I don�t want to have to push against a big crowd today,� he said, and I could tell he was in one of those moods, the kind where you can�t reason with him much or he�ll just shut down.
  I�d already had to practically beg him to let me take him anywhere. �I�ll clear all the people out of the way for you by making a beeping sound like a truck backing out,� I said.
  �And I�ll be sure to run over your foot.�
  I suppressed my urge to say, �No, then we�d both be Todds, and that won�t work.� Instead, I said, �Come on. We�re here now. We can get some gelato and frozen lemonade, maybe a hot dog. I�ll let you buy me a fake Chanel purse.�
  He smiled with one corner of his mouth. I snagged a sweet handicap space between the best side of the pier and the Ferris wheel.

*

  The week before the beach, when I stayed over at his place, he�d asked, out of the blue, �Can you stop doing that?�
  �Doing what?�
  �Staring at them?�
  I had rested my head on his stomach, examining the cracks in the scar where one of his legs used to be, but I played dumb when he called me out. �What?�
  He sat up and wriggled my head away from him. �Would you even date me if things were reversed?�
  I sighed, dramatically, because I didn�t want to get analytical. �You mean if I had no legs?� I tried to invert the image of us�me hunched in a wheelchair with ebony trim, like a defeated Blanche Hudson, only black and young and more beautiful, him hovering over me, studying the striations of the wounds.
  He interrupted, �I mean if you had no legs, and I always reminded you of it, or if you had, like, really bad skin, and I always stared at it, pretending I�m looking at something else.�
  �I don�t do that,� I said. �If anything, I remind you of how special you are, not special-special, you know, but, like, great-special.�
  �You don�t get it,� he said.
  �Get what?�
  �It�s�it�s like you always expect me to be grateful, like you�re doing me a favor.�
  Later, I thought, wasn�t that what he did when he bought Chelsea and all the girls before me all those expensive things? At the time, I said, �Grateful for what?�
  �That�s exactly what I�m saying,� he said, and rolled over with his back to me. A cold stump bumped against my calf under the covers.

*

  Todd bobbed his head and threw a fiver at three break dancing kids, and I knew we would have a good time. He fit awkwardly into most of the shops, even with ramps, but the foot traffic on the pier parted easily for us, anticipating the space of the wheelchair, making a clearing. People smiled into our faces. I wished Todd had worn his uniform, but he never wore it anymore.
  The gasp of a little girl disrupted my bargaining with a street vendor who swore her carvings were real balsam. The little girl wore pink barrettes and took her finger out of her mouth to point at Todd�s legs, or the lack of them. �Look,� she said. Her mother nodded without acknowledging Todd. �Look,� the girl repeated, now tugging her mother�s sweater.
  Todd said nothing. He could be passive in public.
  I intervened. �Look,� I mocked. �Look. What a funny-looking girl. You should really teach your kid how to behave,� I said to the mother. �He�s a real person.�
  The mother smacked her lips and got up in my face, but I didn�t hear what she said because Todd grabbed my arm so hard that I almost fell into his lap.
  �She�s fine,� he said to the mother. �Sorry about this.�
  �Why are you apologizing to her,� I started to get a little loud, but this was justifiable anger. The mother made unintelligible sounds as people stared.
  �We�re fine. Excuse me, everyone.� Todd wheeled away. I had no choice but to follow.
  We plowed on silently then, the crowd sluggish, blocking the path.
  �Can we still get a hot dog,� I asked after a while, bending to look into his face.
  Todd pinched his lips together so tightly it looked like his teeth were gone, too.
  �Please, it�s all I wanted for the day.�
  We ordered two hot dogs with mustard and onions from a man who played Turkish or Kurdish or maybe Indian music from an old stereo.
  �Let�s sit by the water,� I beckoned my hand towards the shore, which rippled about 100 yards away from the concrete path.
  �You know I can�t wheel over there.�
  A family of four looked both ways and crossed over the bike path. They paused at the line demarcating the sand to take off shoes before sinking their feet in soft heavy steps.
  �One day we�ll get you one of these power chairs,� I said.
  He made a noncommittal sound, not unlike a grunt, and said, �It�s too overcast.�

*

  Todd didn�t look at me once during the ride home. �Chelsea told me this wasn�t going to work,� he said quietly, as we approached the elevator to his apartment.
  �You�ll feel better tomorrow,� I said.
  Since then, for the past two weeks, I�ve worked on something to make this Todd get it. I thought about hiding his wheelchair and watching him knuckle his way around the house on two giant fists, like if the Incredible Hulk and the Half Man got together and Todd was the freak show they produced. I just wanted him to see how much I add to his life, how perfect a figure we make together.

*

  I bought the wood�and with more money I hope to buy a fancy set of sockets and connectors�and I guesstimated the measurements from memory and intuition. I carved and sanded and massaged the wood and plied and buffed and blew off the dust and buffed again.
  But the legs are so heavy, far too heavy for Todd to ever use them. I couldn�t sand the insides down smooth enough to keep them from splintering and poking his skin. And it was too hard to line the entire opening of the thigh with soft cloths. Since Brian, I�ve always criticized companies that can�t make tights or nail polish to match dark skin and instead cop out by settling on light, dark, and medium, but I understand now. It�s not just white normativity. I tried so hard to match Todd�s subtle skin tones, scumbled the legs with sepia and umber and chestnut. Even after a decade of studio work, I couldn�t get it right. I can only hope that in a few years I can build a better model with a 3D printer. And it would help if they weren�t surprise legs, if I had actually taken real measurements.
  As I carried them up the stairs of Todd�s apartment�I never use the elevator except when I�m with Todd�I lost one leg and heard it thump and clunk, scuffing itself along the stucco wall the whole way down, but I kept walking so the Todd could at least see part of what I had made. One leg is better than none.
  �What are you doing here?� He looked frightened and rolled backwards a few paces from his kitchenette set, I suppose because I didn�t call before I used my key, but I knew he would be home.
  �I told you things would get better,� I said, presenting my labor, my art, an emblem of my love for him, for us, the symbol of my ability to overlook his shortcomings.
  Todd ran like Flo Jo. He didn�t even need those fists.

*

  A couple of nights since then, I�ve slept with the legs tucked next to me under the covers�I put compression socks on them; I pose them just so.
  The last time Chelsea spoke to me, she said, �But why? Doesn't that highlight how much of the whole person is missing?�
  �No,� I said. Chelsea could be dense sometimes. �He was the wrong Todd. I just have to find the right fit.�






Nafissa Thompson-Spires

NAFISSA THOMPSON-SPIRES holds a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University and is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she won the Josephine M. Bresee Memorial Award in Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in FLOW, The Feminist Wire, and other publications. She is currently working on a young adult novel for boys.





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