With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
Before our first date, Pam googles “how to date someone in a wheelchair.” I don’t know she does this. All I know is that for years my mostly coupled friends have suggested her to me as girlfriend material. Whenever Pam and I were single at the same time, one of the couples would say — in that particular choral way that couples have, not quite in unison, but overlapping each other’s sentences — that I should check her out. The investment my friends had in ending my years of aloneness was greater than mine, but I did check her out. Pam is a cutie. So at a concert I said hi. She was minimally polite in return. A few years later she was at a restaurant with a group of people I knew. I stopped by their table to say hello. Everyone greeted me except Pam. A few years after that, at a Pride Center reception, I came alongside her in the buffet line and made a comment about the brownies. How many times she could ignore me had become my own private game. This time she looked over my head and said nothing. I’m done, I thought. The game wasn’t fun anymore. My life as a single person continued.
Once, a well-meaning (and able-bodied) friend suggested a dating strategy: Ask out three women, any three. No big deal. Maybe one will say no — humiliation is part of dating — but chances are you’ll get two coffee dates. One will be tedious. What’s the harm? At least you’ll have a story to tell. (Did this last part of the instructions imply my friend thought my life was boring?) My dating instructor was right about the inevitable humiliation. All three of the women I awkwardly asked out had the same panicked, twirly-eyed look when they turned me down.
I was in my sixties when Pam joined Facebook and began liking all my posts. She said nice things about my dog, my writing, my camping trips. In return I liked her posts about training for a marathon. She seemed to be fond of jazz standards. I learned she plays the piano. Later, after we are dating, Pam will say she didn’t understand Facebook yet and had no idea what all that liking implied. But before our first date, I don’t know that she doesn’t know how to use Facebook. I do know she still has those sleepy eyes and octave-spanning hands. Her responses have made me bold. I put aside the previous rejections and try again. This time I don’t mess around with coffee. I don’t want anything that might allow her a graceful out or result in a request to be friends. I have friends. I ask her on a dinner date.
Soon after I came out, a woman I was dating made gingerbread lesbians for all her friends as Christmas presents. They had chocolate-chip breasts and curled chocolate shavings between their legs. It was the seventies, and we all still had lovely bushes of pubic hair. She pressed one red sprinkle down into the curls to represent a clitoris.
She used a wheelchair and asked if I would help deliver the treats. I still used braces and crutches then, so it was easier for me to go to someone’s door. I would knock and ask whoever answered to come out to the car so the woman I was dating could give them the festive plates. That way she wouldn’t have to transfer herself in and out of the car over and over, and often there were steps to the front door that would have kept her from knocking anyway.
I was new in town and therefore unknown in her lesbian community. I’d knock and give the spiel, but most of them fidgeted with the door handle, stepped back, and didn’t seem to hear anything I said. Sometimes they would say, No, thank you, and shut the door in my face. This is where I first saw that twirly-eyed panic. I went back to the car and reported the situation. After a while we figured it out: All they saw was a handicapped person at their door at Christmastime. No matter what I said, no matter that I used their good friend’s name to introduce myself, they could only see someone asking for a donation or a handout.
On our date the waitstaff is distracted, and the food is abysmal. I’m nauseated from new medications and have to grip my armrests and hope I don’t vomit. Pam is charming, but my usual dating terror has transformed me into a robot version of myself. I’m sad at the end, because I couldn’t carry off the required ninety minutes of not being weird on a first date. I tried and failed. There’s a relief to that. But later Pam calls me. She says she considered the date a bust except for a moment at the end. She doesn’t say what changed, but she thought, There she is.
My little dog, Pippin, is a rescue. I saw her listed on one of those matchmaking sites for dogs and owners. She’s a terrier mix, which means she wakes up every morning with a plan to dominate the world — or at least me. My job has been to take enough of her edge off to allow us to have a pleasant life together and to keep her safe around my wheelchair. Pippin and I went to classes to learn how to communicate with each other. She learned to sit, lie down, and “leave it.” She learned to walk beside me and, if not heel, at least not run in front of my wheels. Keeping her out of the kitchen while I moved around in that small space took longer. She knows what I mean when I ask her to come, but she is unlikely to do so. Still, she never runs away. She considers chicken bones found by the side of the road exempt from the “leave it” command, but she does tolerate my fingers in her mouth as I pull out someone’s decayed Popeyes lunch leavings. Mostly we have learned to be patient with each other.
After our third date I report back to friends that I want to marry Pam. “Not marry-marry, of course,” I say, “but have that type of relationship.” I say it this way because, despite the scattered places where it is legal for two women to marry in 2013, it doesn’t yet seem real to me. My friends are shocked, as I knew they would be. I’ve been appalled that lesbians’ focus of resistance has shifted from fighting the patriarchy and racism to something as status quo as marriage. Yet I want to be married to Pam, and not just in a so-I-can-get-health-insurance way. But I don’t tell Pam this. Not yet.
Once, someone asked me if, as a child, I’d ever imagined my future partner or family. I hadn’t. Ever. I asked if this was something kids did. Yes, the woman said. Her voice was sad. Her sadness made me uncomfortable.
Pam and I have our first sex talk. I say many words about the long periods of physical aloneness in my life, from childhood hospitalizations to now, and how this most recent stretch of aloneness has included a decade of passion-killing menopausal sleeplessness and anxiety, which has only recently lessened. I say that, when she kisses me, I feel desire, but as if from a far distance. I desire to have desire, though. I stop talking, sure I’ve failed in my explanation. I’ve arrived at her house just as she got back from a morning run. We’ve fallen into this conversation before she can take a shower, so she goes to do that now.
After a minute Pam comes back into the living room, naked, and asks if I would like to watch her shower. I follow her down the hall. I’ve never seen her naked before. Desire becomes less distant. During the shower, water drips and beads and runs down her body the way we’ve all seen it do in movies. She smiles at me from time to time, but mostly she goes about the business of a shower. This isn’t about sex. Well, it is about sex, but it is also a wordless response to all my words, a communication of understanding and of willingness.
This is my first “take me, take my dog” relationship. Despite all her likes on my posts about Pippin, Pam doesn’t know much about dogs, but she makes the effort to learn. I referee some. I tell Pam that when Pippin snatches food off her plate and ignores “no, no,” it isn’t personal. But, really, it is. The little dog has judged Pam an easy mark. Pippin is thrilled to have the opportunity to dominate. I advise Pam about consistency and that anger is neither productive nor allowed.
Pam and I have a fight. We are waiting at the end of my driveway to cross the road. It’s a quiet neighborhood, and the only car in sight pulls to an alarmed stop just short of us. The woman behind the wheel waves frantically for me to cross in front of her. I don’t move. I look away until she gives up and continues on. Pam asks why I acted that way. I say the woman was treating me as if I were a toddler who might dart out in front of her. Pam asks how I can possibly know that. It seems to her the woman was just being considerate. My voice rising, I say I have experience and know what I’m talking about. Who is she not to believe me? Pam says I don’t get to say what she should or shouldn’t think. She says I can be too “directive.” I’ve heard this before. I know it means “bossy and controlling.” I say disabled people have to be very, very clear. We have to say specifically what we want, need, and perceive to be happening; that my being in control makes my life possible. Pam says she gets to come to things in her own way. We reach no resolution.
Visibly disabled people like me are often asked questions: How do you take a shower? (Soap and water.) Tell me about the hydraulics on your lift van. (I don’t know what hydraulics are.) How fast does that wheelchair go? (Vacant smile as I keep going past the heckler.) Can you have sex? (Fuck off.) How do you use the toilet? (Fuck off so much.) Where can I get my grandma a chair like yours? (Here’s the number for my wheelchair place. They’ll take you through the process.) It is always my pleasure to help others be mobile, but I’ve often wondered why people don’t just look for answers on the Internet rather than use me as their encyclopedia of disability.
It’s a year into our relationship when someone asks how we met and I find out why Pam was so dismissive of me in the past. In her forthright way she tells this friend that she always liked me but was scared because of my wheelchair. I hold my breath. We are planning to move in together, which I see as progress toward getting married. I don’t want what she says next to ruin it. I don’t want to find out that somehow I haven’t noticed she’s an ableist jerk who harbors creepy caretaking fantasies or has some autonomy-diminishing perception of our relationship. I also don’t want to hear anything about how she doesn’t notice I’m disabled. (I do realize that I’m not leaving much room for her to get it right.) That’s when I find out she looked it up on the Internet — how to date someone in a wheelchair. I wait to hear what Pam found. The Internet told her not to assume I will stay in my wheelchair at the table in the restaurant but also not to assume I won’t. To ask before helping. To listen to my answer. That if the server asks her what I want, to redirect the question to me. To at all costs avoid saying, “Wanna race?” To not worry about being perfect. She says the permission to make mistakes helped the most. I am relieved. Our plans can continue.
Pippin figures out that having Pam around works to her advantage. They go on runs together. Pam gives her treats after every walk, whereas I have always thought the walk itself was the reward. The crook of Pam’s knees is more cave-like and warmer to sleep in. They work out their own routines and limits. My little dog is different with Pam. When I cry, Pippin becomes anxious and barks at me. With Pam she rests her chin on Pam’s knee to comfort her. When they walk the neighborhood streets together, Pippin doesn’t growl or bark at other dogs the way she does with me (except for the fluffy brown dog in the house across from the park, who is her archenemy). Pam and I decide that Pippin doesn’t think protecting Pam is in her job description. When all three of us stroll together and Pam has the leash, Pippin’s nose stays millimeters from Pam’s calf in a perfect heel. Pam has never asked her to do this. This is the arena where Pippin and I have most often tried to make the other do what we want.
It’s become a joke between the little dog and me: When she forgets herself and pulls in front of Pam, Pippin will self-correct back into that perfect heel position. Then she gives me a sly glance of triumph, in case I for a second thought she didn’t understand what I wanted from her. I mutter, “You bitch.” We share a laugh, Pippin and I, which means I shake my head and roll my eyes, while she snorts and gives me the side-eye. Dog humor is often about winning a power play.
Growing up lesbian and disabled in the fifties and sixties left me unable to imagine being in a coupled state. Being a lesbian meant that, from the first, men seemed like another species — not bad necessarily, but rather biologically and emotionally incompatible. They confused me. And being disabled meant I was never included in make-believe weddings or given baby dolls to care for or asked coy questions about boys. This exclusion from the cultural universe of relationships left me ignorant and awkward. It did, of course, have its benefits in that I grew up without expectations about gender roles.
Since I grew up a sort of separate species, I decide to follow Pam’s example, and I research relationships. I read scholarly articles about how a lack of role models for people with disabilities allows altered thinking. I read about how some children who are deaf and have never known a deaf adult believe they will suddenly be able to hear at a certain age, while others believe they will die young; those are the only choices their imaginations allow. My best resource turns out to be websites that offer ten, twenty-five, or 101 relationship tips. The sites are silly, and the ads gum up my computer, but I learn about concepts like compassion, forgiveness, and presence. And it seems that compromise has a meaning besides lowering one’s standards or becoming untrustworthy.
Pippin and I don’t fuss much these days. Sometimes I have to enforce rules, but she always starts it. She lies on the bedspread, slips her chin onto the not-allowed sheets, and makes eyes at me until I say, “Sheets!” Then she moves her head back and smirks. As usual, the trainer/trainee roles are blurred. Sometimes she puts the tips of her front paws over the threshold into the kitchen while I’m scooping up her dinner, just to hear me say, “Get out of here!” But I have to say it in a poorly rendered New York accent or she won’t pull her paws back. We love Pam together. When Pam arrives at the door, the little dog executes a series of exuberant, gravity-defying leaps with more twirls than an Olympic skater. I whoop along with her.
Pam is going to move in. I worry that I’ll be too . . . well, me, and I’ll micromanage the endeavor to such a degree that she bolts. In my defense, I am a good planner. I make timelines and lists of chores for the move, but I keep them private. I tell myself that they are there if Pam asks. Knowing it will be suspicious if I don’t take charge of something, I decide on the piano. Pam agrees I can handle this particular detail, so I hire a piano mover and set a date. I push furniture this way and that and measure spaces. The piano arrives without mishap and slips into the allotted spot as planned — and the house is changed. It expands. It’s as if Pam were here. When she plays, Pippin comes from wherever she is to lie on the couch, as close to the piano bench as possible. She puts her chin on her paw and listens. Every time.
Sandra Gail Lambert
Since I broke my leg, I’ve experienced, for the first time in seventy-five years, how it feels to be confined to a chair. While stretching out on the couch with my broken leg propped on a pillow, I enjoyed the humor, dignity, and compassion in Sandra Gail Lambert’s “Relationship Tips” [November 2021]. It contained much insight into humans, dogs, and the challenges of using a wheelchair. I was glad it had a happy ending but wished the essay didn’t have to end there.
With a few weeks to catch up on my reading, I’ll be looking for more of Lambert’s writing.