“Well, aren’t you turning into a little lady.” The doctor glances at my chest, then makes note of something on his pad. He turns to my mother. “Have you given any further thought to sterilization?”
“My husband and I wonder if maybe we should hold off until she gets her first period? See how we handle it?”
“In my opinion, it’s easier to get it over with now.” The doctor grabs my legs and stretches them out like a Thanksgiving wishbone. “She’s doing well. Gained some weight and is less stiff through the pelvis. It’s been good for her to get out there on her bike.” The doctor winks at me.
Can I put my pants back on now?
“I see she’s still not as verbal as we’d like.” He makes another note on his pad.
“She watches everything. Doesn’t even fall asleep in the car!”
Mother loves to brag about how alert I am.
The doctor laughs, “Maybe she’ll be a trucker like her daddy.”
The highway’s packed coming out of the city. By the time we reach The Big K, there are six rigs parked in the lot and two more at the pumps. Good thing Kat knows to keep our table open on appointment days.
Kat’s amazing. She has long, red fingernails that never chip, even though she’s always cooking and waiting tables. And she knows how to do my hair up in a French braid.
Mom angles me a look. “She’ll be too busy to mess around with your hair, so don’t get your hopes up.”
We step inside, and I am at peace—wrapped in a blanket of laughter, conversation, and thick-cut fries. I could live at The Big K.
Kat comes over and gives me a hug. “The usual, honey?”
I point at the green milkshake mixer on the counter.
Mom steps in, “And a milkshake. Chocolate, please.”
“You got it,” Kat rushes back into the din.
Mom takes a deep breath, then picks a misplaced sugar packet out of the Sweet’N Lows. She looks over at me. “I gotta work late tomorrow night. Belinda’s gonna have you over for dinner.”
“Nnnnnnaaaaaaa!” My guts cramp.
“Sorry, Mel. I know you hate it when I work late.”
I scooch forward on my seat and use the table to push myself up, then angle my body towards my walker and look over at the washrooms.
“I’ll come check on ya if you’re not back in ten minutes, ‘kay?”
Oh yes, mother. Please do.
I wedge my walker through the bathroom door and catch the familiar stench of Javex and moth balls.
I position myself next to the grab bar by the toilet and inch my ass down onto the seat. Almost immediately, I regret it. My stomach is churning. There’s no way I’ll ever get back up in time to spew into the garbage pail, or even the sink.
You’re such a retard, Mel.
I grab a handful of toilet paper and shove it into my lap. A swell of nausea hits hard. I swallow it down.
I’m terrified of my own body. My face grows cold with sweat. I focus in on the steady drip of the sink faucet; and after a few minutes, my heartbeat slows. I hate puking more than anything in the world. Mom says it’s the body’s way of protecting itself. To me it’s just the pain of exposing what should only ever remain hidden.
Belinda holds the screen door open while I tilt my walker up and over the threshold. “How’s my sweet girl today? Ready for some yummy food?”
I’m not a fucking toddler, Belinda.
The windows steam from the heat of the stove. “Steve!” Belinda shouts. “Get your ass in here!”
Steve appears with messy hair and tired eyes. He sits down in the chair across from mine while Belinda dishes out the chicken and gravy. It spreads like vomit on the plate. Steve takes a big, glistening bite and chews it with his mouth open.
Ever hear of manners, asshole?
The room is quiet, except for the sound of scraping cutlery. I stare down at my plate and poke at a piece of chicken with my fork.
Belinda looks over at me. “You never eat anything. And you’re so skinny! What does your mother feed you?”
Steve pulls the fork out of his mouth. A long strand of drool stretches from it like a tightrope. “What, you think we should call Children’s Aid on John and Deb?”
Belinda looks down at her plate. “When they die, she’ll end up in someone else’s care anyway.”
Steve wads a napkin up into his fist. “We’ve known them for over twenty years.” His voice softens, “‘Sides, when they die, she’ll come live with us.”
My left hand tightens.
“It’s just that she seems so anxious half the time.” Belinda turns her attention back to eating. “Maybe that’s just the way it is for her, you know, because of her condition.”
Belinda gets stuck with the dishes while Steve leads me into the living room. He sits me down and stares at my braced-up legs hanging off the end of the couch, then walks over and presses play on the VCR.
“Pink Floyd: The Wall ” appears in scrawling red letters on the TV.
“For your viewing pleasure . . . and education.” He laughs. “Not that you need any, right Mel?”
I don’t know what the fuck you mean, Steve.
I’d die to get an education in a real classroom. Clapping along to nursery rhymes in the school’s basement doesn’t count.
He squeezes his ass down next to mine. A man loads his gun on screen.
“Belinda thinks you’re a retard,” Steve whispers, reeking of booze and gravy. “Doesn’t get you like I do. You don’t say anything, but you’re a genius. She just opens her yap about every little thing. The gate swings wide, but the cows don’t care. They just look at it ‘n’ moo.”
I keep my eyes on the TV as Steve runs his hand up my thigh. “You’re just a sweet little girl underneath it all. Aren’t ya, Mel?”
Mom drives me home from Steve and Belinda’s, and all I can think about is that part in The Wall when children fall into the meat grinder.
“You okay, Mel?”
We pull into our driveway and there’s Dad, standing on the porch, his arms outstretched and a look of pretend shock on his face. “Melissa! Didn’t expect to see you today! Delivered your shipment of kickass early, did ya?”
Mom gives him that look—the one that tells him to stop saying words like “ass” in front of me.
He ignores her and sets off for the bike shed.
“She’s exhausted!” Mom lifts my walker out of the trunk before coming around to unbuckle my seatbelt.
“I think what you mean, Deborah, is that you’re exhausted!” He gestures for me to follow him into the backyard.
“At least wait until it’s light out! What if—”
“What if what, Deb? You don’t think our daughter has the right to fall off a fuckin’ bike!”
Dad walks over to his truck. He opens the door, leans in, and turns the key. Silver-white high beams blast the yard. He grabs a handful of cassettes from the dash then holds them up, one by one, so that I can choose. I point to what is undisputedly the greatest album of the year: Aerosmith’s Pump.
“Sure you don’t want New Kids on the Block?” Dad teases as he shoves the tape into the player, B-side first. “Now. We need to fuel those engines.” He kneels down in front of my braced-up legs and rips open the straps.
The shiny, red cruiser bike stands before us on the grass, propped up against the shed. Its handlebars glow white hot in the light of the truck. I tilt the bike sideways, towards my hip. I breathe in deeply, psyching myself up enough to lift my foot off the ground. Steven Tyler’s voice shoots me full of adrenaline.
“Who needs training wheels, right kid?”
“Just remember. You are in total control of that bike. You lean one way, it leans the other.”
I ease myself up onto the seat and stretch my arms out straight, like I’m riding a Harley.
“Do exactly what you did before. No training wheels, no difference.”
I push off with my right leg. The bike rolls forward.
“Feet on the pedals, kid. Drive it!”
I struggle to lift my feet up high enough. After an agonizing moment, my right foot hits the pedal. Then, with almost no effort at all, my left foot catches the upswing.
“Fuck yeah, Mel!” Dad is a light-streaked blur as I circle around him. “Giv’er some gas!”
I push down hard with my right leg. My left leg shoots up as I burn like hell out of the backyard.
I’m not going to school today. The thought of getting on that bus—all the kids staring while the driver makes a big deal out of me climbing the stairs as if I’d conquered Mount Everest—fuck it.
Dad’s truck is gone. Mom leaves for work in a few minutes. They trust me enough to get my ass out the door. I live for that little stretch of time, when I get to be alone.
“Have a good day, Mel! Don’t forget, Belinda’s picking you up after school!”
I wait until her car disappears, then head straight for the bike shed. I park my walker on the grass outside. It doesn’t fit through the door, but that’s fine.
Holding onto Dad’s bike for support, I shuffle my way across the dirt floor. If I fall, I’m screwed. Can’t get up when you can’t bend your knees. I lean forward and loosen the straps on my braces, just in case. I don’t give a shit if my legs grow crooked. If I can loosen my braces to board the bus, I can loosen them to kick some ass.
The bus pulls up to our driveway, just as I manage to poke my front wheel out into the sunshine. The driver sits there for a minute, looking around. She cranes her neck out the window. I stand completely still, camouflaged by the shadows in the doorway, until the coast is clear.
I walk my bike out to the sidewalk. My leg trembles as I lift it over the crossbar. I remember what Dad said, that I am in total control. I push off and plant my feet firmly on the pedals.
I round the corner and see Steve exactly where I think he’ll be, sitting in a lawn chair on his front porch, beer in hand.
“Mel? That you?”
I grip the handlebars so tight that my knuckles hurt.
He stumbles onto the lawn. “Holy hell, girl!”
I speed up and my legs burn, but I don’t slow down.