Church bells clanged at a distance as I waited for Adrianos in a San Francisco cafe. Running my fingers over my guide dog Oslo’s soft ears, I attempted to push my first date jitters away. I had met Adrianos at a meet up for martial artists. And outside the basic facts -- where he worked, lived, and the name of his dog -- I didn’t know anything else, which made wonder how he would deal with my blindness.
“Here’s your iced latte,” a woman called to my right, placing a cardboard cup in my hand.
I thanked her in a chipper voice and shifted my attention back to my worrisome thoughts. Will Adrianos ask about surgeries that could restore my sight? Or will he limit his curiosity to how Oslo and I work together? The former often annoys me -- especially when people continue to bring up procedures that are not even available to the public.
“How about a robotic eye?” they suggest, their voices full of hope. “Or what about an eye transplant?”
The funny thing is, it’s not the fact that they assume I haven’t looked into medical treatments that irritates me. It’s that they continue with their uninformed suggestions after I share that I’m happy just the way things are. From time to time, it’s hard for the able-bodied people I meet to believe that a disabled person could be truly happy.
I felt Oslo’s wet tongue on my hand and I could not help but smile. Oslo always knows when I need to chill out, I thought, petting his downy head.
I heard two young women discuss the warm weather as they settled into the table next to me. I pulled out my earphones and became disappointed when I heard my iPod tell me the battery was low. Not wanting to look bored, I kept my headphones on and continued to wait for Adrianos.
“So what’s up with you and Kevin?” the woman closest to me asked. “Is it finally over?”
“We took a two week break,” another girl answered, her voice dry. “But I’m seeing him tonight. It’s really tough for him to get away.”
“Oh Ashley,” the concerned friend spoke. “He’s married.”
Ashley drew a big breath and said, “His wife is in a wheelchair. She can’t give him what I can. If anything, I am helping her out.”
“Just because cripples don’t have sex doesn’t make it right, Ash,” the friend sighed.
I felt my face go hot. How could she assume people in wheelchairs can’t have sex? Worst of all, how could the other girl use someone’s disability as a justification for an affair? The newly blind version of me would have said nothing. But now, eight years later, I sensed the need to speak up. I turned to face the women and felt my elbow knock my drink over. The cool liquid spilled on my shirt and down my pants, making me stand up. Unfamiliar voices swarmed around me, offering me napkins.
I padded my clothes dry and heard a guy ask, “Do you need me to take you to the bathroom?”
I shook my head and told the guy I was fine and that I was waiting for a friend. He replied, “It’s me, Adrianos.”
Being unable to recognize someone’s voice doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s pretty embarrassing. Wanting to put the café scene behind me, I asked Adrianos if we could take a walk down Valencia Street instead.
As we ambled away from the table, I heard a woman say, “You forgot his iPod.”
I reached for the device on the table and heard the woman continue, “I gave the iPod to your brother.”
I was unsure if she was the same girl who was having the affair or not. Regardless, it took every ounce of strength not to say anything rude back to her. After all, I didn’t want to be that angry disabled person. I bit my lower lip, took the iPod from Adrianos, and continued making my way out of the coffee shop. Feeling Oslo guide me around a crowd, I wondered why people always assume my dates are my family.
Despite the sun’s warmth and tepid wind, I sensed a cold vibe coming from Adrianos. As he shared the details of his job as a graphic artist for a startup, I wondered if seeing me make a mess had changed his opinion about me. Maybe he thinks I will always spill drinks, I thought ruefully, walking between Oslo and Adrianos. But, I’ll never get the truth unless I ask.
So, as we approached a store that reeked of patchouli, I asked him if he was doing ok. His answer surprised me.
He shared he grew up in foster homes and that his brother, who had passed away two months prior, was the only family he had. Hearing that woman refer to me as his brother had stirred up a lot of memories about Jason.
“When I got to the café,” he began, “you looked upset. But it didn’t seem like you were mad at me for being late. It was more like you were mad at something else.”
“I was mad at a conversation I overheard,” I started to say, “and then I made a mess. To top it off, that lady assumed you were my brother -- as if only my relatives would hang out with me.”
“Well, I had a friend in college who was in a wheelchair. He was a total slut. That lady was way off,” Adrianos said.
“I know,” I replied, smiling.
We grabbed seats in an Indian restaurant where we continued our conversation about death and disability -- two topics we felt people didn’t always know how to handle. And even though the conversation was serious, we both laughed as we shared the different dumb things people had said to us.
“I hate it when people ask me for his age,” he said. “I mean, why does anyone’s age matter once they are gone?”
I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear the relief in his voice. As we continued our chat, I was reminded that every person, disabled or not, has a part of their lives that’s hard to talk about. Maybe someday I’ll hear someone say something dumb about disability and it won’t faze me. Until then, I will try hard to remember that, like death, not everyone knows how to handle the topic of disability.
Belo Cipriani is the Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, the “Get to Work” columnist for SFGate.com, and the author of Blind: A Memoir. Learn more at BeloCipriani.com.