I had forgotten what a burden I was to my parents until after my first week with Alex. I remember my parents phoning Dr. Hutchins for guidance on how they should pay her for the appointments and operations. There were several programs in the Inland Empire that provided insurance for the disabled and would pay retroactively, which meant whichever one I was eligible for would pay off the remainder of my current bills and future ones.
"I can try to find a job," I told them one day, but my mom refused. I mentioned that I wanted to repay them in any way I could, but it made all of us feel worse. I didn't hate the idea of a job, but the thought of being turned away by the fact I was visually impaired bothered me.
My mom worked for a sandwich shop and my dad was a substitute teacher. I knew their combined incomes wouldn't cover the bills. The guilt I felt smothered me day and night. Sleep developed a nasty habit of avoiding me for several nights.
My dad called Dr. Hutchins once we found a program I was eligible for. It was a relief to know that they would pay the bills for the operations and further appointments. The anesthesiologist was the main problem.
"I could take out some money from my IRA," my dad said during dinner a few nights after my insurance plan was approved. "It won't be much, but we'll have everything squared away."
"I can't let you do that, dad," I insisted. "I want to pay for it!"
"I appreciate that, son," he replied. "You don't have to do anything, though. You've been through enough."
"Please, dad," I argued. "I feel like a burden to you guys. It'll make me feel better!"
There was a long pause before my mom made her presence known.
"What about applying for social security? My brother can't work anymore, so he applied for that," she piped in. My dad lifted his head and nearly choked on the forkful of food he shoved into his mouth. It was as if the greatest idea in the world was revealed.
And it came from my mom, of all people. Truth be told, she wasn't the greatest when it came to good ideas.
"That's right! I completely forgot about that!" My dad said. His voice was about as high as mine.
"Does that mean I'll be able to pay you guys back for everything?" I chimed in.
"It means you can start paying us rent, too!" He replied. He laughed with my mom. My jaw dropped.
Applying for social security was a royal pain in the butt. The office was on the other side of town and closed early, so I had to miss a day of school and lessons with Alex. It was on a Tuesday, so it gave me time to recover from the injection the day before.
The visit to the office lasted twice as long as a standard check-up with Dr. Hutchins. The lobby was filled with normal looking people and a single officer that sat in a corner desk. My dad said a lot of people tried to swindle the government so they could get out of work and I wondered how true that statement was.
Most of the visit required a mountain of papers to be signed and dated. I didn't understand the relevance of the questions, such as:
"Are you currently employed?
What is the total income of the household?
How many people do you live with?
How much are your possessions worth in total?"
The only thing that had anything to do with our visit was when the worker asked for paperwork that was given to my parents by Dr. Hutchins. My diagnosis, prognosis and all the details regarding my vision loss were all there, including the new papers that we received from my new insurance provider. Although everything looked good, according to the worker who took her job half seriously, it would take at least two months for the request to be approved.
After a painstaking amount of signatures and boring questions, we were released from the clutches of social security. I made a joke about retiring early to my dad, but he didn't laugh.
We went for a late lunch at Burger Bistro. I ordered the Works Burger with a side of curly fries and a diet soda; my dad ordered the same.
I knew what he had in mind.
"So, how are things going with Alex? Are you making any progress?" He asked with a cheek full of fries.
I took a moment to look around the place and gauged which direction I faced. The main highway was behind us and the way home was to my left, which was west.
"I'm facing north and you're facing south," I said.
"I bet mom is sitting in bed watching her shows," I continued and smirked as I took a bite of the mammoth burger in my hands. "So she's facing east."
"It takes one to know one," I said. We both laughed.
We fell into silence as we ate. After a few minutes, my dad took a break from his burger and straightened up.
"I'm really proud of the way you're handling this, Roland," he said and folded his hands together. "Your mom is, too. We've noticed how much you've changed in such a short amount of time."
"What do you mean?" I asked. I thought of Sean when the word 'change' came from him. The savory burger I gorged on didn't seem as appetizing as it was.
"You were so depressed a few weeks ago," he explained. "You didn't even want to go see Anthony and he's your best friend! You've done a complete one-eighty. I don't think it's the right word for it now, but I think you might even be happy."
"I still have a long way to go, dad," I replied. "I won't be happy until I can do everything everyone else does, but better."
"You see? That's what I'm talking about," he blubbered on. "You've never been this determined about anything before! Sure, you're a natural at everything you do, but it all came easy to you. I can only imagine how frightening it is, what you're going through, but you're taking it all in stride!"
"The Oscar winning speech goes too…"
"I'm being serious, son," he said. He was determined to downplay my attempt at humor. "You're taking this like it's no big deal, and that's incredible. I couldn't do it."
We stayed at our table when we finished our burgers to let them settle in our bloated bellies. Our post-lunch conversation was filled with lethargic small talk.
"What do you think of Alex so far?" He asked. I cocked my head and tried to beat around the bush.
"She's a good instructor," I said as I stifled a yawn. I rolled the tip of my cane between my heels. "I'm already learning a lot from her."
"What about as a person?"
"Dad, I've only known her for a few weeks," I said and furrowed my brows. I straightened up and let out a half sigh, half burp. "She's nice. Almost too nice, I think."
"Is she sugar coating the lessons?" He asked.
"It's not that," I replied then looked at him. The graying blob of mustache twitched under his nose. "I mean, overall. I guess you could say she's nice to a fault."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Would you do someone else's homework if it meant keeping them on the football team?" I asked. I took a sip of my soda to get the sour taste out of my mouth.
"Depends on whose homework she's doing."
"Her boyfriend's. His name is Jason Gallagher," I spat out. The sour taste in my mouth intensified. I saw his shoulders slump; he was as disappointed as I was.
"He's the most important person on the team, right?"
"Is he the most popular guy in school?"
"Why wouldn't he be?"
"He's the typical Hollywood jock. With all the bells and whistles," I said. We both laughed.
He sat in silence for a while, as if he tried to come up with a valid solution.
"Do you like her?" My dad asked as he flattened his hands on the table. I almost choked on the next sip of my soda.
"It's not about that, dad," I remarked. "I just think that Gallagher dude is taking advantage of a nice girl. I feel bad for her."
"You like her," he pressed on. "I saw the way you looked at her the first time you two met."
I felt the blood rush to my cheeks.
"Even if I did, she has a boyfriend," I breathed out. "It wouldn't make sense at all. Besides, I'm her student, for crying out loud."
"Has she said anything bad about the guy?"
"Only that she hates kissing him and he's always trying to get to second base with her."
I started to get mad, so I kept my mouth shut.
That Gallagher guy really pissed me off.
There was a long pause before my dad gave me a final piece of advice.
"If she's unhappy, she should let him go. In your case, I would be patient and wait for the right time to make a move. Do not overwhelm her, though."
My parents always praised me for my absurd amount of patience. After the pep talk with my dad, my best attribute became my worst enemy.
Our second week together was a review of Orientation and Mobility since I was absent Tuesday of the previous week. She told me, as if to scold me, that every day was vital to the structure of her lesson plan. If I missed a day, it would ruin the entire week. I didn't understand why it was so important, but promised I wouldn't miss another day unless it were an emergency.
I learned that there was an exception after the first week. Alex updated the curriculum so that each Friday alternated between going on field trips and something she called "Stress management," which was an opportunity to let out my frustrations and worries. I liked the idea since there were no restrictions. I had the chance to talk about anything; of course, that didn't exclude my feelings about my visual impairment.
The idea behind the field trips stemmed from a class she sat in at Braille called "Community Interaction," where the students were taken to several places to ask if services for the visually impaired and blind were offered. Even though Braille covered a partial amount of the valley with the class, Alex thought it would be a good for me to interact with the general public. I tried to argue that dealing with the students at school was enough, but she didn't take no for an answer.
Our first field trip was to the movie theaters. There were two specific ones that she wanted to visit. Mr. Hicks, our principal, goggled at her when she gave the reason for the two off-campus passes she requested even though we didn't need them.
"Let me get this straight," he mused and rubbed the back of his head. "You're taking Stark out to see a movie? What does that have to do with your lesson plan?"
"It's a part of his updated curriculum, sir," Alex said. She flashed him the revised schedule sheet she had signed by the student advisor of Braille. She placed it on his desk as she continued, "This field trip is designed to show Roland what local businesses have to offer for the visually impaired and blind. I figured a movie theater was the best place to start since they're required to have devices to help those in need."
"Well, you both aren't required to stay on campus since you don't have afternoon classes, technically. I'm interested in hearing about your trip, though. Have fun, you two," he replied. "And be careful."
Somehow I knew his eyes were on my cane when he said that.
While we walked to her car, which was parked behind the performing arts building, I heard heavy stomps approach us from behind. Alex was the first to turn around.
"Hey Jason," she said as he placed a hand on both of our shoulders. I shrugged it off.
"Where are you going?" He demanded.
"On a field trip," I answered. "It's a community interaction le—"
"Yeah, very interesting," he retorted. I could hear the rumble in his throat as if he just snarled at me. It amused me to see Alex push his hand off of her shoulder. "So, where are you going?"
"On a field trip, like Roland said," Alex said then gave my wrist a nudge. We continued to walk towards her car with Jason in close pursuit. I glanced at Alex every few steps; it was the first time I saw her annoyed.
She even sounded annoyed.
I expected Jason to stop in his tracks when we reached the point where campus ended. When we got there, he tugged on Alex's arm. She almost tripped.
"Jason!" She barked. My head snapped towards them and I saw how wide Alex's eyes were.
"I'm not going to let you two go alone," he snarled. I wanted to pry Alex away, but my legs were frozen. I saw Alex struggle against Jason's grip. My adrenaline surged.
He deserved a stiff punch to the face.
"I'm his instructor, you idiot! Now let me go! This is a field tri—"
"And you're my girlfriend! You think I trust this loser? He's probably faking it just to get in your pants!" Jason blubbered on. His temper rose when Alex continued to resist. I fumed and turned to face Jason.
"Let her go," I said and pointed my cane in his direction. It brushed against his jacket-clad belly, "Unless you want my cane shoved so far down your throat it comes out of your ass."
I heard Jason let go of Alex's wrist when he got between us. He stood almost a foot taller than me and had to look down. I turned my head up and smirked wide.
"You think you're so tough?" He growled. I wanted to laugh.
My amusement fell flat on its face when I saw Alex nurse her wrist.
"Try going through what I have, bro." I mocked.
"Jason, come on! Why won't you leave him alone? He's done nothing to you!" Alex pleaded while she tried to come between us. Jason pushed her away which pissed me off even more. He closed the gap between us and pressed his nose against mine.
My smirk grew wider.
"Come on," he said then grabbed the handle of my cane and tapped it on his chin. "I'll even give you the first shot."
I searched for Alex underneath the cloak of my sunglasses. She was gone.
I grew nervous.
What if Jason hit me then? I didn't think that far ahead.
"Here's my first shot, smartass," I said and took a step back. He brought his fists up. I laughed audibly, but cleared my throat, "Why are you so interested in Alex, anyway? Everyone knows you take advantage of your popularity and can have any girl you want in school. I'm willing to bet you're just using her so you can keep your precious position on the football team."
"Yeah, what's your point?" He blurted. I turned my head towards the walkway that lead to the main office. I saw two blobs that rapidly grew in size. As the footsteps grew louder, I turned back to Jason, elated to find he still had his fists up.
"Just as I thought," I said while I rocked on my heels. "You don't deserve her at all. You're just a stupid jock, after all. That's so sad, Jason. You're all brawn and no brains. I know that some people feel sorry for me, but I'm sure everyone pities how stupid you are."
I felt Jason's calloused palms press against my chest. It was unfortunate for me, since I rocked back on my heels when he pushed me. The momentum made me crash against the ground and the back of my head bumped the cement barrier behind me. My cane clattered against the ground as I fell.
"Gallagher!" A voice roared; it was Mr. Hicks. I placed a hand behind my head and did my best to act hurt.
"He started it!" Jason yelled back.
"Miss Harris told me the whole thing," Mr. Hicks said when he arrived at the scene. Alex helped me to my feet. "Come with me, Gallagher. Let's discuss your future with the football team, shall we?"
"Roland, I'm so sorry!" Alex cried out as she retrieved my cane. After she placed it in my hand, she gave me a tight hug. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"
"You're dead, blind boy! You hear me?!" echoed from across campus. I dusted myself off and laughed at him.
"I'm fine," I said and turned my head to look at her. When I saw her wipe away a few tears, I remembered how angry I was. "Are you okay? That moron didn't hurt you, did he?"
"I'm fine," she said, the fuzzy bar of pink in the middle of her face curved upward. "You're not the only one who can act."
We didn't talk when we loaded ourselves into her car. It was a lime green Toyota Corolla. The interior was bare except for the rear view mirror. A few cell phone charms dangled from the post that attached it to the windshield. I knew what they were since they all had little bells that sounded off.
I reached out to make them sound off again. The jingles calmed me down a bit. My hands still shook from the spike of adrenaline I felt.
I took a glance at Alex. She stared through her windshield and had a tight grip on her steering wheel.
"Alex, it's okay," I said quietly. "It's over, now."
"You remember how I said Jason is a jerk some of the time?" She replied. Her eyes were still forward. I leaned back in my seat and tapped at the cell phone charms.
"I remember." I said.
"I take that back. He's a jerk all the time," she said and placed her keys into the ignition.
I smiled as the engine roared.
We went to the Century Theaters in Rancho Mirage. I still didn't understand why we were there; I thought I would probably be able see at least the shapes of people as they moved onscreen. However, Alex didn't reveal to me what our visits were about until we were outside of the lobby.
"Are you ready? I'll be right behind you," she said while she held the door open for me. I peeped inside. I forgot how big the theater was.
"What am I supposed to be doing again? Asking for a ticket?" I asked.
"Try asking for their audio describer," she told me then gestured for me to go inside.
I felt my lungs get heavy. I hated being put on the spot like that. My mom and dad did that all the time; they often told me to start doing things by myself because I was a "big boy."
I was going to be eighteen in January, so what was I afraid of?
I continued to stare into the lobby. It looked like a barren wasteland of sorts, aside from the employees that idly stood around for a customer to come in. My feet wouldn't move.
"I'll be right behind you," Alex said before she gently pushed me towards the door. Somehow, her touch got me to move.
There was a mass of light peach and purple behind the ticket booth. When it grew in size, I took shallower steps. I felt Alex press her palm against my shoulder as we approached.
What was wrong with me?
Did I become socially inept?
"Uh, hi," I said and let out a nervous laugh.
I felt Alex disappear from my side.
"Hello! How are you doing today?" The employee asked. Upon further speculation, I found that it was a woman who addressed me. Her voice was shrill and I wondered if she could shatter glass, or maybe even my ear drums.
"I'm fine, really," I replied. I held my cane out in front of me. The light pink fuzz I saw in the middle of her pale face curved upward.
I felt Alex jab me in the side with her finger. That was my cue, I figured.
"Oh! Right! Um, do you have the, um, audio describer thingy? I can't see very well, so I was wondering if you can help me," I managed to get out through heaving breaths. I scratched the back of my head and let out another nervous chuckle.
The woman, who called herself Lucy, told me that certain movies they were showing didn't have audio describers because sometimes it takes a couple months for them to be made by their respective companies. I wanted to say "Thank you very much! Sorry for bothering you!" but Alex picked out a movie for me.
"I'll show you how it works, come on!" Lucy squeaked.
She came out through the door to the left of the ticket booth with a small black box and a pair of headphones attached to it. I was amazed at how it worked: The audio tracks were synced along with each movie and ran in time from start to finish, excluding the trailers.
"Have you ever listened to an audio book before?" Lucy asked me as we made our way to theater six, which was close by.
"I'm listening to Treasure Island right now," I said. "The narrator is horrible, though."
"You're going to love this, then!" Lucy piped up and opened the door to the theater.
There was nothing but darkness beyond the walkway that led to the seating area.
"I've got you," Alex told me.
"Give me a second. Please," I said as I tried to collect myself.
I felt dizzy all of a sudden.
Since the month long period of complete blindness, I never trusted the dark. I had a feeling I was going to trip at least once, which is what always happened. Even with the help of my cane, I was still afraid.
Why did I feel panicked?
When I tried to shake it all away, Alex had me at her elbow and guided me inside. I was relieved when we stayed underneath the warmth of the walkway lights.
The screen that scaled the entire wall was in sight, and I saw the massive shapes of people and scenery flicker as the camera cut from shot to shot. It was the peak of an emotional scene since there was a crescendo of violins in the background.
When Lucy configured the audio describer to sync with the current movie, she put the headphones over my ears. It startled me a bit since I was focused on the mouths of the two onscreen actors.
They were going on and on about a girl; I guessed that the younger actor confided in the older one. It made me think of the conversation I had with my dad about Alex.
That was when Lucy turned up the volume on the audio describer. The voice that crept into my ears was monotonous, but it painted the picture of what was happening on screen motion by motion and shot by shot until the next piece of dialog was said.
"What should I do, Buddy? She's gone now," the younger actor said. His voice was high pitched; sort of like mine.
"Old Man Parker places his hand on Justin's shoulder to comfort him. Old Man Parker smiles," the audio describer went on, then cut out when Old Man Parker spoke.
"I've seen a lot of women, kid. That one is well worth chasing after," his voice was low and raspy.
It bugged the crap out of me that we walked in on one of the cheesiest scenes in a movie I had ever heard or seen before.
The only part that I didn't like about the audio describer was it depicted what was happening onscreen while the music played.
My mouth hung open as I watched. I was too absorbed into what was happening to catch Alex and Lucy's expressions; not that I would have been able to in that sort of lighting, anyway.
I felt chills. It was like listening to an old-time radio play or the audio books that I checked out from Braille, but a hundred—no, a million times better.
I didn't know what possessed me to do it—maybe it was the scene where the younger actor kissed the lead actress after a short montage, or maybe I was just lost in the moment,-but I reached out and held Alex's hand.
She didn't pull away.
We thanked Lucy for the demonstration and left. Alex decided that we didn't need to go to the other theater one town over. And, instead of going back to school with the assumption that Jason would be waiting to get his hands on me, we decided it'd be best to go home.
When Alex dropped me off, the first thing I did was ask my dad to give me a list of all the movies that were playing at Century Theaters. His eyes goggled at me and I just stood there and smiled.