By Lee Gulyas
My first date with the man who would become my husband was a disaster.
It was August, and the San Francisco fog rolled across Ghirardelli Square where we both worked selling things to tourists. As we walked, I noticed Ed had a slight limp, and in that optimistic way of seeing one thing connected to everything else, I thought about my friend who had just sprained his ankle and asked my date if he had sprained his.
“No,” Ed said. “I have a fake leg,” as he tilted his head and gave me a smile, leading me to think he was toying with me.
“Yeah, sure. That’s a good one,” I said, not about to let him, or anyone, play me for a fool.
We drove for coffee in the Mission, away from the water and fog, past the War Memorial Opera House, past the fortune cookie factory and into the sun. Light streamed onto our table and illuminated the twisted branches of the sidewalk trees, sad dogs on leashes, motes of dust revolving in the air. Ed talked about folk art, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Hungarian food. I told him about my love for classical music and punk rock. He didn’t blink, didn’t think the two were incompatible. After a moment of silence, I motioned to his leg and asked how it happened. “My friend shot it off when I was thirteen,” he said, smiling.
“Great, great,” I said, always the cynic. “Do you tell everyone the same story?”
After coffee, we agreed on dinner and more conversation. We talked about landscape and trains and music and literature as the sun disappeared and lights framed the city skyline. I lingered over my calzone and asked him to tell me more. “We were camping in the middle of the desert and my friend got the gun out of the truck and it just went off.” He flashed the same, sly smile, and his eyes gleamed.
“Wow,” I said. “Your story just keeps getting better. You’re really good at this.”
We decided to go for drinks. I took him to a dive bar close to my apartment. He was impressed with the extensive taxidermy, year-round Christmas decorations, dim lighting, and ample margaritas. I selected music on the jukebox—Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Ranchera. We sat on red vinyl-covered swivel stools and sipped drinks under the glow of Christmas lights draped over deer antlers. After a few drinks, we planned for a weekend hike on Mt. Tamalpais.
Later, while I described the mechanical beauty of vintage Italian motorcycles, Ed sat his drink on the bar, leaned over, raised his pant leg, pulled up his sock, and stuck it to the Velcro square on his hard, plastic leg.
I remember my stomach turning, growing tight. I felt queasy and it wasn’t the margaritas. I don’t remember the rest of the evening, what was said, how we parted. What I do know is that at the age of twenty-five, for the first time in my life, I called my mom to talk about a man. After blurting out the story, panicked that I couldn’t go hiking with him, that I’d made such an ass of myself, she set me straight. “It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.”
How could I argue with that?
I’ve never been known for my social grace, yet this blunder had my head spinning. I didn’t want to face Ed after spending the whole afternoon, evening, and night making fun of him, but I couldn’t figure a way out of our next date without making myself look worse. The awful thing was that I was falling for him, and it had seemed so long since this was possible. San Francisco in the eighties was a playground full of sex, drugs, and music, and I had played for years until my circle of friends became smaller (and more responsible). The party was winding down. We no longer danced till four a.m., heading out for breakfast after, tearing through the streets on motorcycles to get home to our beds before the sun came up. Now we worked at our jobs or went to school and met for breakfast on Saturday mornings. I hadn’t been on a date in years, but I was content enough with my job and my friends that being “dateless” didn’t bother me. And I never thought that I was missing anything until the possibility of missing my next encounter with this man outweighed any chance for the salvation of my pride.
The next day was sun and shadow, redwoods and ferns. I wondered if I should say something—apologize for my disbelief, my arrogance—but at first there didn’t seem to be a good time, and as the day went on an apology seemed irrelevant. We sat on a rock in the middle of a rushing stream. We feasted on pistachios and dried figs, listened to woodpeckers and ravens. We scrambled up hills and down ravines, stood above the fog line and peered across to San Francisco.
At the end of the day when his car stopped in front of my apartment, Ed leaned over, stared into my eyes and asked, “Can I do something?” I nodded tentatively and he reached around to the back of my head and took my unruly hair into his hand. He lingered, then let go.
In the coming weeks we walked all over the city to restaurants, movies, and cafés. At Point Reyes, we hiked two miles with full gear in the blue moonlight and made camp on a bluff overlooking the ocean. On a weekend trip to Squaw Valley, he taught me how to downhill ski and never laughed, even after the chair lift knocked me down. We backpacked our way through steep canyons and valleys in the Southwest, swam in cold, spring fed waters in Oak Creek Canyon. I was in new territory—I usually spent my time in restaurants and bars and my idea of outdoors activities took place on a motorcycle. Still, I was hesitant about Ed’s handicap, uncertain of how his disability could change my life.
I couldn’t figure out exactly what I was afraid of. It wasn’t that his prosthesis was limiting—he was way more active and daring than I was. It certainly wasn’t the idea of disability—my aunt had polio, my dad had a permanent tracheostomy, and I have friends with a range of conditions and array of medical apparatuses. So what was my problem?
That’s when I realized that I was my problem. I wasn’t afraid he would need me. I like being needed. I was afraid that I would need him.
It took years for my husband to tell me the rest of the story. How his leg blew open in front of him, how his friend’s father threw him in the back of the truck and drove like hell to the nearest hospital, miles away over rough desert roads. How he waited in the emergency room for hours while the hospital tried to locate his parents so they could authorize emergency treatment, so the doctors could do more than just resuscitate him each time he slipped away. How he spent months in the hospital enduring surgery after surgery, taking away more of his limb because of the spreading gangrene. How a young resident told him to leave the hospital, that he had been allergic to the antibiotic, but the attending doctor wouldn’t even consider allergic reaction a possibility. How leaving the hospital not only saved what was left of his leg, but also saved his life.
Over twenty years later I won’t lie. I won’t say that Ed’s leg has been problem free. Since he is active he often breaks his prosthetic foot. The costly legs have to be replaced every few years, the silicone liners every few months, and insurance doesn’t always cover the expenses. There are times when his skin gets irritated or chafed and then he can’t wear the leg at all. He’s undergone corrective surgery that required him to stay off his leg completely for two months straight—no prosthesis, no walking, no driving. He suffers from back problems; there are days at a time when all he can do is take muscle relaxants and lie flat on his back until the pain subsides. Then there’s the frustration and subsequent depression, a symptom of all the imposed inactivity. He experiences chronic pain, not phantom ones, though he gets those too. But he rarely asks for help; he hates being immobile, reliant on others for his basic needs.
Ed seldom slows down unless he has to. We visit relatives in Hungary. We’ve trekked through rural Mexico, traveled through Romania and Ethiopia, and lived in Yemen—all difficult places to get around. He gardens, bikes, swims, and has a long list of interests and projects, too many for me to keep track of. I’m content in the house, with a book. Ed’s the one that makes me get off the couch and out into the world.
Now he jokes that I married him for the parking space. I laugh, but I have to admit that it is convenient. The state we live in calls the rectangular blue placard that hangs from our rearview mirror “a privilege.” I see it as a courtesy, a small gesture that can only help make this single aspect of his life a little easier.
In the meantime, we’re proof that normal is relative. Sometimes our daughter, now a teenager, has to be reminded why we often can’t go skiing or for a hike, or why we get directed to the front of a crowded parking lot at Disneyland or the fair.
Sometimes I forget too, even though I know my future will include a long parade of orthopedic surgeons, dermatologists, prosthetists, physical therapists, and the accompanying bills. We’ll have to move from our cozy Victorian home to a more practical one-story house, ready for wheelchairs, accessible design, and all the accoutrements of “independent living,” even though there is no such thing, even though in the end it could be me who has to rely upon Ed for care. I suppose this is the rest of the story: nothing is certain—so we go forward the best way we know how.
LEE GULYAS lives in Bellingham, Washington, and teaches at Western Washington University. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Prime Number, Event, Barn Owl Review, and The Common.