High school was not a pleasant time for Ian Robertson. Sure, it was better for him than some, but that’s because the popular kids were so politically correct that they felt it necessary to be nice to the kid in the wheelchair. Ian didn’t have to go through the blatant teasing or finger-pointing or making-fun-of-you-to-your-face-but-in-a-backhanded-tone. Come the weekend or after-school hours, though, those cordial smiles disappeared faster than the Roadrunner. Ian did spend a weekend with his school friends every couple of months, but mostly he would spend his non-school nights alone or with some childhood friends from the neighborhood—when they weren’t busy.
Ian was not the type of guy to invite himself to the party, either, and that was part of the problem. He couldn’t get angry at teenagers—to Ian, who had been born with spina bifida, they didn’t yet understand the hardships of reality or how to treat one another. In other words, Ian was like the owl from Winnie The Pooh, and he knew it. He figured that the kids hosting parties were too scared to invite Ian because their houses were inaccessible, he couldn’t get into the bathroom, s/he didn’t know how his body would react with his medical condition, and, of course, he might be a goody-two-shoes and tell the parents of the illegal activities (even though Ian was more of a heathen than all his peers combined)—convenient excuses. But Ian gave his peers too much credit: these were none of their concerns.
What made high school really unpleasant, though, were the girls. For a guy in a wheelchair, high school can be a haven because he sees the world at ass-level, and when out in public, where at least a portion of population is older, that sight line becomes a hit-or-miss attribute. The situation was great for Ian because it appeared as though he was looking straight ahead without his eyes wandering, or people thought he was on some ethical higher ground and didn’t look at girls that way—he looked. Unfortunately for Ian, he grew up in the Lake Forest suburb of Chicago and went to a private high school and saw a lot of white-girl, banana-shaped asses, unlike the sistas he would sometimes see by the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier.
Ian could talk with the best of them, too. He was a smooth operator that way. It wasn’t like one of those movies when the outcast got locked in the janitor’s closet or the girls would roll their eyes like they were tracing the arc of Jupiter. No, they gave Ian the light of day, liked talking to him—he was a good listener. They filled Ian up with all kinds of hope, but deep down he knew, like Red from The Shawshank Redemption, it was a Molotov-cocktail kind of hope. Ian had planned it so that when the day came and he had some fine girl (he wasn’t going to settle for what people thought he deserved) pushing his wheelchair or whatever, she could tell her teacher that she was helping him with his books or some other ‘gimp lie’, and the two of them could go in the antiquated elevator, he could open the gate between floors so the elevator stopped, and the two of them could give each other head or fuck. But there was as much chance of that happening as Ian walking again.
For all his linguistic skills and thoughtfulness, Ian was not able to corral one girl. Even the girls who looked like cattle, who were not the ones Ian spent much time talking to, were like, “Ian? Fuck no.” It wasn’t the right environment, either. The Lake Forest girls, and the ones that commuted to the high school, were plain-Jane, traditional-housewife types—not exactly independent thinkers—and Ian, despite what some would consider chauvinistic machinations, respected females so much that he was not going to make the first move and have the girl feel like ‘I have to spend time with him because he’s in a wheelchair’ or ‘I’ll feel guilty if I let this kid down.’ If Ian was going to have a relationship, he wasn’t going to start it off with a disingenuous sentiment. And, Lord knows, no girl was going to make the first move on a gimp—believe that.
Ian lived in this self-imposed cycle as only he could—by continuing to push the wheels of his wheelchair. By senior year he had decided to stop trying to get with girls (which freed up a lot of focus and energy) and looked forward to his next year at the University of Wisconsin.
* * *
Her name was Amara. She lived in the small port town of Niquero in the Southwest corner of Cuba. Her father, Nestor, was a fisherman and her mom, Regala, was a cook at a local restaurant, sometimes preparing the fish her husband would catch earlier in the day. The town had a population of about 40,000, and although some European tourists would come through town and stay at the Hotel Niquero, the patrons of the restaurant were mostly locals and the majority of Nestor’s fish went to the government.
Some days, when the sun was coating everything with its magic and the sea had no whitecaps, Nestor would take Amara to the dock to show her off. Even at three years old, in her pink flip-flops that smacked her mocha feet, matching pink shorts, elastics that held her hair in knotted pigtails and baby blue t-shirt, she was cute as could be. Regala made sure her daughter looked good every day. Amara would be so excited when she saw her father’s boat that she would freeze and scream in place with her arms spread and fists clenched. A few times Nestor laughed and had to cover his daughter’s mouth so they didn’t bother everyone else at the dock. The boat wasn’t much: the evergreen underside, scraped by rocks over the years, looked like it had white scars; the stern full with nets and traps to catch conch, etc., along with a fishy aroma; and the wheelhouse, open in the back, with its one pane of dirty glass from the residue of sea-spray, and a copy of Don Quixote, its pages crinkled and dried out, on the shelf by the wheel for when Nestor had a slow day on the water. Every time Amara was on the boat she would go to the railing on the bow, look down at the hull slicing through the opaque blue, and feel the sun and wind streaming through her hair like her mother’s ethereal fingers—and every once in a while Amara was briefly able to forget she was in Cuba.
Amara didn’t live in a shanty like some of her friends nor in a big casa like some of her friends whose parents were doctors or government officials. Her house was modest—the best-looking on the block. A faded sky-blue, one-story box of a house with red geraniums in the two front windows, a garden in the twenty square feet of front yard they had to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, a broken white screen door out back that screeched when it opened, a grill full of charcoal, and a rope swing Nestor tied to a branch on the one tree on the property. For all of Amara’s excitement for her papi and the ocean, as Amara grew she took more of a liking to cooking. She would see her mami preparing dishes in their kitchen just for practice, just to see what worked, as if she was solving a mystery, sprinkling the entrée with spices or picking fruits or vegetables from the garden. In the truest sense of the word, she naturally was intrigued—it just felt right. It wasn’t long before Anara was standing on a pedestal next to her mami at the kitchen’s island observing her hands flip a piece of fish or season a piece of meat.
By the age of ten, Amara was either watching her mami cook at the restaurant after school or improving her skills in the kitchen at night after she finished her homework, while her parents were watching TV or banging in their bedroom. Of course she could hear them through the thin walls, no matter how hard they tried to keep quiet, but Amara didn’t care because she was in her own world, focused on her craft, and anyway, to Amara, those sounds were the sounds of love. One might think that being around food daily might cause that person to snack more and put on a few pounds, but it was the opposite for Amara: she began to see her ingredients as tools, the way a doctor’s stethoscope is a passage to the body’s internal workings.
By age thirteen the girl was already known around town as a master of Cuban cuisine, and her female peers should have just given up then because Amara had developed her breasts and other features faster than the other girls, so the boys at school and the men at the restaurant and dock looked her up and down like the sunset was cut in half and one piece was melded to her chest, the other to her rump. Amara was oblivious to it, though, to the gift of power bestowed upon her, or at least she acted like it. Girl inherited mad charisma from her mami, too—could have been Miss Cuba if she wanted. But Amara didn’t want that. She was the type of girl who just wanted to have fun, just kept the blinders on and was a bona fide chef who happened to be the best student in her class.
Those high-school summers were the best of her youth. Amara and her crew would drive on a ribbon of old concrete along the base of some hills, Caribbean waters on the other side, to a nearby beach in her friend’s father’s ’67 cherry-red-and-white Buick with a lawnmower motor. Periodically, when someone leaned on the door or felt the interior’s leather, the door would swing open while the car was moving, and someone’s arm would have to be grabbed to keep her from falling out. (The radio was broken, but if you put six or more Cubanos in a car, even the dead of night couldn’t drown out the sound.) You could hear half-hearted chants of ‘ohhhhh’ that rose and dipped like someone on a rollercoaster, but afterward everyone would laugh, and they’d continue on the road to the beach. At the beach there was always some group of boys playing dominoes on the sea wall, wearing tank tops, drinking rum juice boxes, and every time they would catcall Amara because she would always wear a black bikini with a sarong that the boys would beg her to ‘take off’. She would give lip back to them, find a faraway spot on the beach and cook for her girls on her electric skillet while they pranced around in salt water. Her fedora would shade her big eyes, and, with a wine cooler in hand, the sizzle of vegetables was like music to her ears.
* * *
There was a freshness to the October foliage in Madison, Wisconsin. The leaves were either yellow like gummy worms or rich red like the signs, lettering and shirts around the University of Wisconsin campus. Ian had just woken up: he shimmied on a pair of ratty cargo pants and threw on a Chicago Bulls T-shirt accompanied by socks and a pair of Vans. He stopped at a McDonald’s near his dorm and got hash browns, hopefully masking the fact that he had not brushed his teeth. Ian used two hands to eat while he rolled down an incline to the Department of Physical Therapy where there was a free, student-run clinic. He used his feet to slow himself down or swerve out of the way of others until he finished his hash browns, threw the wrapper away, and put his hands back on the rims of his wheels. When throwing out the greasy wrapper, Ian looked out on Lake Mendota. It looked especially crisp, the navy water sparkling, University buildings and luxury condos in the distance, the colors popping like a movie with high contrast.
“Frank, what’s going on?” Ian said to the seven-footer walking toward him.
Ian passed Frank and couldn’t see him, but he could hear Frank back-pedaling and singing a Phil Collins’ line: “… it’s just another day of you, of you and me in Paradise.”
Frank was the star player of the basketball team, and because Ian was given an accessible single room in a brand-new dorm, his room was right down the hall from Frank’s. In talking around the dorm, they discovered that their dads were Phil Collins fans, so they’d goofily croon his lyrics to each other.
“Shit.” Ian, not paying attention, had wheeled into the automatic door at the building’s entrance and knocked it off its track.
“Oh, honey, don’t worry. I can get somebody to take care of that,” a gray-haired lady with glasses said from behind a desk.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. There’s no need to worry.”
“Thank you very much.” Ian was taken aback by the woman’s kindness.
Ian smiled in the elevator, thinking about the woman, how wrong some were about people not being intrinsically good, how some just needed help bringing it out and how, though he would never admit it, he was one of those people who could bring others’ goodness to the surface.
“Ian Robertson for a nine-o’clock appointment.”
“Okay, Ian. Have a seat and somebody will be right with you.“
Ian (like the receptionist didn’t know he was already sitting) found an open spot in a circle of chairs and parked his wheelchair. There were four other students—three girls, one guy—all wearing the paraphernalia of sports teams. A lot of the athletes, like Frank, went there for therapy. A couple of the girls were checking their phones, the boy was reading a magazine, and the third girl was just chilling like Ian. They all gave Ian an up-and-down retinal scan like he was about to jack the place. Did he have something on his face? Were they staring because he rushed out of his dorm like a hot mess? Or was it simply because, as someone in a wheelchair, he was a somewhat novel sight? Ian never knew.
“Ian Robertson,“ a black-haired woman beckoned, wearing a pair of white slacks with a pink Izod tucked in. “Hi.” She waved. “I’m Amara. Do you want me to push you?“ She leaned downward, looking at Ian.
“Yeah, sure. It’s probably faster.“ Boy knew exactly what he was doing—building a relationship without even sweating it. “Sorry if I’m a mess. I just woke up.”
“No problem. I think half of campus just woke up.”
The two laughed, followed by the loudening voices of therapists and patients in the back room.
“That’s an interesting accent. Where are you from?”
They arrived at the therapy table. “Are you okay with the transfer? Oh, let me get this for you.” Amara pressed a button underneath the table’s dark blue padding that made it rise a couple of inches to Ian’s height.
“Just put your hands on my hips so I don’t fall.” This was a half-truth.
Amara obliged, and Ian lay down. It was a good thing Ian was in a rush that morning, because if he had worn gym shorts (like he usually would to therapy), his boner, which could have touched the clouds, would have been more noticeable.
“Let’s just start off with some basic stretching … oh, your hip flexors are tight.”
“It‘s been a while.” Ian laughed.
“So, Ian, what year are you?” Ian liked that, someone who would initiate conversation opposed to periods of awkward silence until he came up with random non sequiturs to get the ball rolling. In his experience, Ian found that people were timid when they talked around him, like he was a crazy person who would snap and start biting their arms. Then again, maybe this willingness to talk on Amara’s part had something to do with her being Cuban.
“I’m a twenty-year-old sophomore,” Ian said. “What year are you?’
“I’m twenty-two, a senior … Okay, I think that’s good for now,” Amara said, taking Ian’s leg off her shoulder and placing it down on the table. “Now, do you know how to do leg lifts?”
“Therapists been telling me to do those since I was born,” Ian laughed.
“Well then, why don‘t you do them?”
“Because I have a life.”
Amara nodded and smiled, conceding the point. “Do twenty on each leg for me.”
Ian started. Amara counted: “One, two, three, four ….”
“Amara, why on Earth did you come to Wisconsin from Cuba?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean why here? Why not some place like Miami?”
“There’s so much of the world out there. I guess I wanted a different piece of it.” Amara shrugged her shoulders. “I thought you would go some place warm and more flat that’s easier in a wheelchair.”
Ian was surprised Amara was aware of this circumstance that people in wheelchairs had to consider. “Yeah … I guess I didn’t have the balls to make the move.” Quickly changing the subject, Ian said, “You must be hardcore Christian. Aren’t they all down there?”
“I would say that’s pretty accurate.” Amara laughed. “I’m not really, though. I go to church every once in a while to dress up and feel nice or appease my mother and father. How about you?”
“The same,” Ian answered. “I don’t know.… You miss Cuba? What do you think of America?”
Amara searched for the words like they were in a cave: “It’s not what I thought.”
“You don’t have to be nice. You fucking hate it, don’t you?” Ian laughed.
Amara was unusually earnest because it seemed to her that Ian wasn’t holding anything back. “You know those people who say you get out of something what you put in?”
“That’s a lie.”
Honesty breeds honesty.
Ian thought of the comment as a statement on the immigrant experience, but then he thought of the patients Amara must’ve seen, like him, struggling twenty-four/seven for no particular reason, some living off welfare, others living in group homes. “Yes, it is.”
* * *
At eight o’clock that night Ian rolled under the speckled tarp of sky to the student union to get some supper. He had just finished math homework for his pain-in-the-ass class across campus at eight AM the next morning. Ian saw Amara walking toward the doors from the opposite direction.
“Can’t get enough of me, huh?”
“That’s it,” Amara said, not even registering the flirt.
“What’s up,” Ian asked.
“Just getting some food,” Amara answered, holding the door open for Ian. “They should have those buttons that open the doors electrically.”
“They do, but—“
“They don’t work.” Amara pressed her lips and rolled her eyes, disappointed by her kind.
“You get used to it. Hey, you want to share a table?”
“Where you getting food from?” Ian asked.
Ian was going to have pizza or Chinese food, but he went to the deli with Amara because it would be easier to have someone help him carry his food rather than wheeling with his right hand while holding a drink in his left and hurrying because a hot meal was burning through the greasy plate and onto his ballsack.
The couple looked like royalty on their way to the deli, eyes attracted to them like moths to light, bodies parting out of their way. Amara grabbed a boxed salad and apple juice from a chilled area while Ian ordered a cheese-and-salami sandwich and got a red Gatorade because they didn’t sell soda.
When the two paid for their meals, the clerk looked at Amara and asked, “Do you want any mustard for the sandwich?”
Amara wasn’t having it: “I don’t know. He’s right here. Why don’t you ask him?”
The two sat down at a table by a fake plant, Amara’s cheekbones illuminated like fine china reflecting light. Her eyes were a bright hazel, what Ian imagined the waters of Cuba looked like.
“You taking any good classes?” Ian asked.
“No, just requirements I need to graduate. I probably should have done some freshman year, but my advisor sucked, and I didn’t know what I was doing.… Some of those intro courses are hard,” Amara explained with her fork like it was a baton.
“Simplicity can be a bitch.”
Suddenly, a man amid a trio of friends bumped into the back of Ian’s wheelchair, lurching him forward, causing him to hit his opened Gatorade and for it to spill, hemorrhaging gulps—thankfully, not on Amara, who promptly stood and faced off the offender, her eyes burning.
“Amara,“ Ian yelled, trying to stop her. Poor Wisconsin motherfuckers were about to feel some major fire-spitting wrath.
“Watch where you’re fucking going!” She straightened, managing to stand even taller.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it,” the Boy Scout said. Looking in his eyes, and hearing his remorseful tone, Ian thought it was genuine. “Here I’ll get some napkins and help you.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Amara exclaimed. The Boy Scout, who was a newly minted freshman, ran to the nearest napkin dispenser while Amara continued. “You know there are people in the world besides you? That wheelchair is an extension of him. It’s not furniture. What, are you one of those assholes who just go up to people and start hitting them?”
“No, I just didn’t see him.” The Boy Scout cowered, wiping the table as fast as he could.
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t look up as much. You ain’t ever going to live in the clouds.”
“To him,” Amara pointed at Ian.
“I apologize, man. My bad.”
The Boy Scout ran off. Ian sat shocked, looking at Amara like she had an aura of power around her. “Thank you. No one’s ever done that for me.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
In the middle of the student union, with everybody looking at them by now, Ian hugged Amara. For a guy that had never boned a chick, Ian had oceans of game.
“Are you flirting with me, Ian Robertson?”
Ian smirked. “Now, now, I wouldn’t flirt with my therapist.”
“Student therapist,” Amara played back, smirking herself. “I’m just saying … it’s not official yet.”
“Would you like to come back to my dorm?” Ian asked.
* * *
For the next two weeks the two were inseparable, the two learning as much as they could about each other. Ian, being a kid of the nineties and not being able to pursue all the physical activities he wanted to, confessed to Amara how much of an old-school gaming dork he was with his Atari, Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis game systems complemented by a stack of Gamer’s World magazines. Amara was the type of girl who didn’t mind the posters of bikini models on Ian’s wall, but, partly out of respect for Amara, and a bigger part because having Amara in his room was like having a model actually in his room, a week later he decided to take those posters down but left his Bob Marley and Sublime posters up. Amara told Ian how much of a book nerd she was, constantly reading authors like Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Alejo Carpentier, etc. because she never imagined she would see the world.
Amara looked a lot better when she wasn’t wearing work clothes: having a revealing tropical climate wardrobe and being a hot Latina who gives no fucks what anybody thought ushered in Amara’s vibrant style. Ian, too, dressed a lot more dapper, to everybody’s surprise, wearing pressed, button-up shirts from Pacific Sun and striped Izods from The Banana Republic. With their more attractive looks, that second week the couple fucked—a lot. Multiple times a day. Amara trying to figure out what Ian was capable of in bed, Ian trying to figure out what Amara was willing to do in bed—and they were both satisfied.
So they got married. Just like that. They didn’t tell their friends or family until Ian graduated because they didn’t want people to think of them as crazy (though, they might have been), but they kept the marriage certificate in the back of a small drawer in Ian’s desk all along—when you know, you know. Ian knew he probably wasn’t going to end up with a girl as good-looking as Amara—certainly no better—wasn’t going to end up with someone as boisterous who would help fight for his rights and wasn’t going to end up with someone who, with her background in physical therapy and her ability to make a healthy diet delectable, could prolong his medically complicated life by ten years. He knew she was going to be fiery and overprotective, that somebody like him marrying a physical therapist was like somebody with a neuroses marrying a psychologist and that some who perceived Amara as ‘ditzy’ or ‘clumsy’ (because of her looks) didn’t know it was just a case of her seeing reality in three dimensions instead of two. Ian could put up with it all; nothing else mattered now besides Amara. In Ian, she found, despite the diverse array of characters at the restaurant or dock in Niquero along with a bevy of patients, an endlessly curious individual, who could make her laugh and listened to her as if she was a beautiful anomaly like a talking plant. Amara knew Ian, like most disabled people, had a strand of stubbornness, was not physically attractive as other men she could be with and was not as book smart as her, but he was the most unique person she had ever met, he made her happy, feel like she was home.
We can’t run away from what’s inside us. Even though Amara had gone to school for physical therapy and had a three-point-nine GPA, she still missed the aromas of the kitchen and its frantic pace. When Amara graduated she applied to many hospitals to work as a physical therapist, but because of her age and perceived inexperience, she was rejected from everywhere. While Ian was finishing his last two years as an undergraduate, Amara worked as a short-order cook in a local Mexican restaurant at night and went to cooking school during the day to improve and diversify her skills. Amara lived with Ian in his single dorm, which was against the rules, but no one wanted to be the person to end a gimp‘s happiness. The plan was for Amara to save the money from her job that wasn’t paying for cooking school and move down to Niquero where Amara could open a restaurant. And that’s what happened, the couple after two years buying a big house with a garden on a tiny nearby island only accessible by boat, but Ian didn‘t factor in the humidity of the Cuban summer that sapped what energy he had. So, after four years, when the restaurant and staff were established, the couple started looking for a second property in Switzerland to spend part of the year. It wasn’t long before they found a condo in Luzern where Amara could open a second restaurant, and Ian could wheel down to the marketplace on the lakefront. Some nights at dusk the two would have drinks on their back patio while looking out on at the towering Alps, Amara’s electric skillet sizzling.
* * *
That’s it. The love story of Amara and Ian. I know what you’re thinking: ‘Yeah right.’ ‘Too good to be true.’ The thing about ‘being too good to be true’ is that you are already admitting there’s a smattering of truth to whatever it is that you are talking about. So, let me paint the rest of the picture.
Isn’t it possible that Amara had an uncle who she loved more than anything, who broke his C-6 vertebrae on some rocks during a boating accident while fishing with Amara’s papi? Couldn’t this hallowed figure have given an electric skillet to Amara on her eighth birthday because she liked cooking so much, causing Amara to vow to hold on to her gift forever when her uncle died three years later? Wouldn’t this give reason to her openness to a relationship with Ian, an understanding of how he thinks?
(Okay, I’m going to stop asking rhetorical questions now.) At the end of her second year in high school, Amara’s parents told her she could keep cooking, but that she had to focus on a real profession that would make money—Amara’s parents knew how smart their daughter was. Inspired by her uncle and intrigued by anatomy due to her infatuation with cooking, Amara decided to apply to universities in the United States to become a physical therapist. Being a book nerd at the top of her class, combined with universities being on the prowl for international students, landed Amara three academic scholarships. The University of Wisconsin gave her the most money, the arid pictures of spring looked so different than Cuba, and she had never seen snow (which she would later realize was not a bonus), so Amara went off to Madison to become a Badger.
As for after college, when the two moved to Niquero it had already been a year since the United States had lifted their embargo, bringing in new businesses and attracting a steady stream of new, excited tourists. When Amara opened her restaurant it was primed to take off like gangbusters. That’s where the money came from for their house on the secluded island with the garden like the one from Amara’s childhood. It might sound implausible that a guy in a wheelchair lived in a house that he had to take a boat every day to leave and get to, but since Amara knew people at the dock, Cuba’s lack of regulations and Amara’s papi giving them his boat with a lot of open space, it was easy to cut an entrance into the boat for Ian and manufacture a beige drawbridge with a sanded down lip for him to roll on.
By the time Ian was twenty-seven and Amara was twenty-nine, the couple had saved up more money, and because they chose not to have children (not because Ian couldn’t get it up or was shooting blanks, or because Amara was infertile), they started looking for a second property in a better climate for Ian. They settled on Luzern, Swsitzerland, which they had gone through while backpacking through Europe the summer after Ian finished his junior year. They loved the cleanliness, the laid-back lifestyle, the central location in Europe so that Amara could open a second restaurant and have some customers—like her restaurant in Cuba—from France, Austria, Spain, etc. The real reason the couple was interested in Switzerland, though, was because, once citizens, Ian and Amara would receive free health care for life—beginning to understand the bureaucratic challenges for the disabled, this gave Amara great piece of mind if anything happened to her. It was the best of both worlds: November through March in an enchanting seaside town with a tropical climate and April through October in a metropolitan city in a landlocked country with majestic mountain ranges.