Handicap

Fiction

Mira stared and stared at her iPhone, her sweaty thumb digging into the touchscreen just below the stored text message. A victim of an “e-breakup,” she could no longer regard the phenomenon as an urban legend. Such things really do happen to adults over thirty in monogamous relationships.

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The smell of dank bodies eventually broke her trance. A wave of commuters trudged past, panting in the stifling haze of Toronto’s most relentless heat wave in decades. There was only one escalator leading up from the bowels of Kennedy Station, and today it was under repair. Mira looked up at the endless climb, feeling nauseous. And there were two more vertical faces she needed to scale before reaching the Rapid Transit platform on the top floor.

Mira buried the cell in her laptop case, but the words still invaded her thoughts. She took the first step up (“not”) and another (“a”) and another (“match”). She stopped to breathe, trying to exhale the hurt out of her system. The case in her hand weighed nothing. The chip on her shoulder was crushing her like an anvil. The text message would not leave quietly from her brain. What was the etiquette that allowed for acts of cowardice and insensitivity? Surely, three months at most. They had dated four months—longer than most probationary periods and enough to earn a proper severance. Manners aside, the truth was she had grown fond of him, had even considered falling in . . . Mira was thankful for the sweat streaming down her face that camouflaged her tears.

A little further down the platform, a bell went off to signal the arrival of the handicap elevator. Mira watched as invalids hobbled into the small glass car. Everyone claimed their bit of personal space, filling it to capacity. She wondered if they’d make room for an emotional cripple. If so, she’d have to act fast. Closing in at three o’clock was a blind man. His single tuft of blond hair stroked the air like a proboscis. The steady tap-tap-tapping of his cane felt its way to the elevator. Mira’s tragedy was much less visible, but it was still debilitating. She desperately needed to go home, close the door and have a good, ugly cry. She desperately needed that lift.

Commuters rubbernecked as they scurried to take refuge aboard the air-conditioned train.

So Mira put on a limp. She had seen her mother do the diabetes shamble, and it just came to her instinctively. Slide-step, slide-step. The blond blind man suddenly sensed an opponent and picked up his pace. Mira boosted her tempo, determined to overtake him. It was tap-tap versus slide-step. They were neck and neck. Only a few paces left to the finish line. The closing bell chimed. Mira leapt over the threshold, leaving the blind man in the wake of her sweat. A terrified elderly Asian man braced for impact. Mira knocked back his frail body. She hit the floor, rattling the entire car. It bucked and growled at the excess weight. The glass doors jerked together, then reopened, trying to spit her out. Mira held on until the jaws finally sealed shut and swallowed the carload of people whole. The hydraulic system engaged, and they began their slow ascent.

Mira offered her apologies to the Asian man as she tried to steady him. He uttered a vicious caw that told her to just back off. He scrutinized her seemingly healthy limbs, and that invited suspicious glances from the others. Mira made a show of massaging her rotting diabetic leg. She looked over the other passengers who were crammed in with her, breathing in each other’s fumes: a pregnant mom and her stroller, a granny with a walker, a corpulent man leaning on a cane, a woman wearing a chemo headscarf, a businessman with a leg cast and, of course, the surly Asian man. They were all encased within a thick tempered-glass cube, surrounded by a thick tempered-glass shaft. As they ascended above ground, the searing high-noon sunlight scorched them from above. It was an overcrowded tropical greenhouse, but Mira was certain she could endure it for another thirty seconds.

The discomfort lasted much longer.

Something screeched. Something else groaned. There was furious clinking, drumming, crunching. The enraged harmony was deafening. Only half a metre left to the final landing. The elevator ground to a halt. Then silence. Everyone waited a moment to see if the lift would resume on its own, the breakdown magically healing itself. Nothing. Mira, closest to the panel, pushed the door buttons, hoping to give it a kick start. Nothing. She then reached for the emergency phone. The Asian man furiously smacked her hand away. He snarled at her in a foreign language, frantically mimicking her button pushing.

“Phone,” she said, pointing to the emergency panel. “No buttons.” Mira tried to wave him back, but he resisted. He kept stabbing the air with his thumb, desperate for her to stop fiddling with the controls.

“Let her make the call!” cried the mom, anxiously fanning the air around her baby who had become disturbingly quiet. Mira sternly pushed the old man aside and unlatched the panel. As she swung the plate open, he covered his eyes as if expecting bloody entrails to spill out. Mira picked up the phone and was instantly connected with the attendant.

The others started shouting instructions at her.

“Get help!”

“We want our tokens back!”

“What time is it?”

The attendant told Mira the maintenance crew had been dispatched. She stressed the urgency of the situation: the stifling heat, the lack of oxygen, frantic seniors (well, just one) and a baby. The attendant assured her they were being monitored.

He had “seen” her. Mira cringed. She braced for a smirk, a rude gesture, spit. His reprisal was far worse.

They were also being ogled. Commuters rubbernecked as they scurried to take refuge aboard the air-conditioned train. They continued to gawk from within the comfort of their walk-in cooler. One woman appeared to be sipping coffee! On the platform, passersby captured images with their cellphones, probably uploading them to CP24’s Breaking News. Suburban teens with much less purpose in life staked out their territory in front of the glass entertainment box and watched the reality show unfold. Mira wondered if her ex caught the action from home. 

The humiliation of being on display in a fish tank added to the strain. Blood pressures boiled, and lungs burned as they processed the hot, thin air. There was gasping and groaning, but no one had the energy to speak. The mom softly whimpered, frightened for her withering baby. The passengers pitched in to fan him with a newspaper, sun visor, whatever they had. Even those at the other end of the car made feeble wafting motions with their bare hands to offer moral support. But Mira also noticed some of them lean forward to collect the baby’s air. Self-preservation had kicked in.

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The maintenance crew arrived and huddled around a junction box near the staircase. Mira watched anxiously as they fiddled with the complex system of flickering lights and switches. She thought of her glossy iPhone: the flashing pixels, twinkling emoticons, those painful words “not a match” left frozen on the screen. It would remain there so she could pick at that scab over the next few days.

Suddenly, creeping inch by inch up the stairs, Mira saw a familiar tuft of blond hair. The blind man slowly made his way up to the platform. He turned toward the commotion. Mira trembled. Had she known she’d eventually face the person she wronged, she would never have acted so selfishly. Panting and wheezing, the blind man approached the elevator. Mira tried to think herself into a small, inconspicuous package. He edged closer and closer until his cane tapped the glass. His eye line bore through the double doors and into the car, scanning. Mira held her breath and didn’t move. He sniffed the air, tasted the vapours. Then his gaze landed squarely on her face. He had “seen” her. Mira cringed. She braced for a smirk, a rude gesture, spit. His reprisal was far worse.

Beyond the foggy glass, out on the platform where freedom prevailed, the blind man simply turned around and boarded the next air-conditioned train, flying away to wherever he pleased.

It was a moment of weakness on a very bad day, in an otherwise honest and socially conscious life.

The hydraulic system finally whirred back to life. Joy swept through the cube like an injection of cool air. The car slowly began to glide upward. Everyone’s eyes were on the floor as it moved closer to being level with the landing. Once level, the doors would automatically open. But they didn’t.

The power suddenly cut out. The car dropped. Mira’s stomach caved in. Every molecule in her body lurched into freefall. Everyone screamed! The sliver of time lasted an eternity. The car screeched to a halt, and everyone collapsed to the floor. The car had dropped three metres further down, hanging just below the landing. Wrenched from the blinding sun, they were now smothered in murky shadows under the emergency backup light.

Everyone shouted frantically at each other to get off, stop touching, stop pushing. The baby remained deathly still. Mira grabbed the phone and blurted, “Hot! No air! Baby! Hot! Hurry!” The attendant assured her the fire department and paramedics were on their way, and there was honestly nothing more he could do. Mira slammed the phone down and forced herself to regain composure. She squinted at the wilting silhouettes. The glistening whites of their eyes rested on her as she steadily announced that they would just have to wait. Everyone moaned miserably. Mira came off as patronizing, and she knew it.

Suddenly, a soggy palm smacked Mira across the knee. It was the elderly Asian man who had challenged her limp. He scolded her, again cawing and braying. He mimicked her pouncing and the doors jamming. He poked hysterically at all the buttons on the panel, implying that Mira had broken it anyways. He ended his rant with a hiss and a crooked finger in her face. The other passengers remained silent, perhaps secretly blaming her too. Of course, she didn’t control the weather or shoddy engineering, and she certainly didn’t mangle the panel, but Mira had played a part. It was a moment of weakness on a very bad day, in an otherwise honest and socially conscious life. Her heart went out to the Asian man, to all the old and infirm people on board, whose physical suffering was far greater than her own. Mira quietly resumed fanning the baby. The others followed her example and pitched in.

Finally, the fire department arrived. The firefighters quickly hacked through the heavy tempered glass of the elevator shaft. An angry storm of glass pellets battered the car’s roof. Everyone cowered and gasped under the hail of gunfire. Then one of the firefighters unlatched a small plate on the car’s metal roof and peered inside, letting in a hopeful ray of sunlight. He knew it was their first physical reunion with the outside world, and he offered them a comforting smile. He explained the electricians were fixing the problem, but right now he needed to retrieve the baby. They couldn’t fit a ladder into the cramped space. Someone would have to climb onto the handrail and pass him up. The pregnant woman immediately hiked up her skirt and attempted to mount the rail herself, clutching her baby in one arm, shoving her belly to the side. The others had to physically restrain her. The firefighter called down, “Can anyone less pregnant climb up onto the handrail?”

And here, Mira faced her dilemma. Could she do this without exposing her humiliating truth? Probably not. She had made quite a show of her bogus limp. She had decided acts of cowardice were acceptable in relationships under three months. Well, she’d definitely known these people for less than that. A dozen arguments could excuse her cowardice; a dozen more could even condone it. It’s just not how Mira wanted to lead her life. There would always be moments of weakness that she wouldn’t be proud of, but this was not going to be one of them. End of moral showdown. Mira charged forward.

And was met with a familiar damp smack against her knee. The Asian man wanted to expose Mira and force her to help. Instead, he threw her off balance. Mira toppled. She slid in between several bodies, shoving them on her way down. She landed on all fours, right under the open hatch. The mom, thinking she’d been offered a stepping stool, climbed onto Mira’s back. Mira yelped! The others rushed to steady them. The pressure dug deep into flesh and bone. Shoe treads scraped at her skin. Mira twisted her head around and saw the mom raise her child up as high as her arms could stretch. The firefighter reached down into the car. “Just a bit further!” he pleaded. But they couldn’t quite connect. Everyone extended their hands toward the baby, willing him higher. With all the power she had left, Mira straightened her limbs and levelled her back. Her cargo shifted up. The firefighter dipped low. And the chain finally connected.

Mom watched anxiously as her child was lifted out and whisked away. Reluctantly, she lowered her protective hands and stepped down. Mira collapsed onto her side, marinating in a pool of her own sweat. Everyone’s focus remained on the hatch. They waited in silence, gripped together in a fist of tension and a collective prayer. At last, the firefighter poked his head back into the elevator. His smile alone delivered a ray of light. The baby was fine. Sighs of relief floated through the car like a cool breeze. Mom dissolved onto the floor next to Mira and wept. Mira joined her, finally having that good, ugly cry she so desperately needed.

Forty minutes after the ordeal had begun, the elevator was brought back up to the landing. When the doors opened, everyone slithered out of the car completely drenched. They were a freakish sight, but the voyeurs had already moved on.

The emergency crew helped everyone to the stretchers that had been prepared for them. Bottled water and towels were handed out. Paramedics administered oxygen and tested vitals. Mira watched the elderly Asian man gracefully sip his water with a straw, no longer a wounded animal. She saw the mom calmly sit back, trusting the care of her baby to professionals. Let out of the cage, everyone reintegrated with the civilized world.

Mira lay on her side, snuggling with an oxygen tank. The firefighter came over and held up her laptop case. “You related?” he asked. Mira nodded weakly. “How’s the back?” Mira signalled OK. “Ambulances are just outside. Let’s get you ready to roll.” He helped adjust her breathing mask. “They got the A/C cranked. It’s a meat locker in there. You’re gonna love it.” He laughed. “Now, which leg?” Mira shook her head, no. It was a relief to drop the charade. The firefighter was confused. “Your disability?” Mira took a deep breath of soothing oxygen before digging into her case. She pulled out the iPhone and showed him the screen. The text message was still there. The firefighter simply shrugged. “Well, he’s right. He is nowhere near a match for you.” He flashed her a cute smile.

 Though she might have had the strength to walk to the ambulance on her own, as the firefighter lifted her up in his secure embrace, Mira just gave in and let him.


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