There is a man in a wheelchair who is nearly always in the café where I go to write.
We have a history.
A long time ago, he stopped me on the street and asked me to take him home.
His head droops to one side. He has trouble speaking. He keeps a set of used straws down the side of his chair. He’s about 50.
I pushed him down the road to his house. An Altbau with a grand entrance hall. One small, rickety lift.
A teenage girl came out of one of the doors. I looked at her searchingly.
“Fourth floor,” she said.
Every day probably. A stranger off the street. A woman.
There wasn’t enough room for us both in the lift. I got him in, pressed the button and took the stairs.
Outside his door, he fumbled for his key. Close to him now, I thought I caught alcohol on his breath.
“Will – you – come – in?” An age to get the words out. Huge eyes. Big lopsided smile.
“I’m sorry I can’t.” Breezy. “I have to be somewhere. Sorry.”
He wouldn’t have the strength, I thought. From his chair.
The key was heavy and awkward. Like something from the olden days.
Finally got the door open. Pushed him inside.
He held my gaze. “I – hope – we’ll – see – each – other – again.”
We do. All the time. He spends his days in the café.
There have been times when, from a distance, I have seen him making his way there. His floppy head from behind. The rainbow-colored wheels. Crawling along.
And I have crossed the road. I don’t have time, I tell myself. I don’t have time today.
In the café it’s different. There undeniably, I have time.
A few months ago, he offered me a job.
“To – take – care – of – me – at – home.”
“Just – small – tasks – get – me – up – in – the – morning.”
“Thanks!” Bright and breezy. “But I already have a job. Look.”
Showed him my diary. All my shifts marked in. So busy.
“Some weeks I start at 6 am.” Pointing elaborately, like a Kindergarten teacher. “Other times I work late. Like here. Look.”
I flicked through the pages, flustered and apologetic. Cat-like, he pounced.
“I’d – pay – you -very-well.”
“I cant quit my job.”
Pool eyes again. A wistful smile.
Was I a bad person for crossing the street sometimes?
Then, last week again. The first time I’d been in the café in a while. A hot day. Couldn’t see my laptop screen with the sun. Pen in hand instead. Old-school. Wondering why one of my characters wasn’t working. Did I even know her, I wondered.
A presence at my side.
Looked up. Smiled. Couldn’t not. Don’t have that quality. Would keep me up at night to keep my head bowed. He knows.
“Nice – to – see – you – again.”
We talked for a while but then they brought his Coke outside for him so he had to go.
“Enjoy the sun!” I said. Bright and breezy.
Bright and breezy.
Went back to my novel. She felt flat. Why was it that I was having trouble getting to know her?
“I – have – an – offer – for – you.”
Not even five minutes had passed.
The same one as last time.
I showed him my diary. All those shifts. Busy, busy. Breezy, breezy. “Look, this week – I’m working late. That’s the only reason I can go to the café.”
Half an hour later, that feeling again. Looming by my side. Took longer this time to look up. But still, couldn’t not. He knows.
“I’m – very – self-sufficient.” Huge eyes. Lopsided smile. Clever. Had he children, I wondered? Any he knew about?
“I really do have a job,” I said. “I’ll get in trouble if I stop turning up.”
“Sch-ade.” He wore an expression that, whether by accident or design, could make you cry.
Wheeled himself back to his Coke. Went back to my character. Didn’t know enough about her past. Needed to care more. Who was she even? Deep down. Who was she?
I was scribbling furiously when he returned for the last time.
More playful now. He had weighed it up. The cost of self-respect.
He had loose change in his hand.
“I – have – three- euros – thirty,” he said. Smiling. But panting too, to get the words out. Big eyes. Head collapsed to one side.
Confused, I made a leap. The wrong one.
“Oh,” I said, gesturing elaborately to my drink. “I’m good with my coffee. But thanks so much!”
He laughed and placed his hand on his chest. “I-think-you’ve-misunderstood- I’m – asking-” he moved his hand from his chest towards me – “you– for- money.”
I laughed then, too. At myself, and in relief. “Do you want me to get you another drink?”
“Oh. Em. Okay. How much do you need?”
“How – much-are-you-willing-to-give?” There it was again. That look. The smile. His big green eyes.
Charm written into his facial features. The only physical force he still possessed.
“You can have two euros, if you like.”What did I even have in my purse? How much were cigarettes? What were you supposed to give? Anything even? If he wasn’t in a wheelchair, what would I have done?
“Danke!” he said as I dropped the coin into his hand.
Big, lopsided smile. Power in incapacity, too.
“I – won’t-bother-you-again.”
“No worries! Enjoy your smoke.”
He never approaches men, I thought. I have never seen him with another man.
Later, as I was leaving the café, I saw him again. A cigarette in his drooping mouth.
A middle-aged woman pushing his chair. Unsure exactly where he wanted her to take him.
I looked at him and he gazed right back.
Something sheepish in his expression. Triumphant too.