A Vantage Point of Asses, chapter 7
"My house is such a mess! It’s such a mess it’s such a mess!" Jenna can’t help singing mid panic clean up. Work was a little better today, because Bob has indeed seen that her article was sent on Thursday, like the rest of them, and it’s gone out to the client today.
But now she’s home and she’s panicking because Alex is going to be coming over in two hours to – God help them – bake cookies. He’s bound to be better at it than Jenna, though, so that’s a relief. Her mother would approve of her panicking, not because she’s panicking, but because her house hasn’t been this tidy since she first moved in. Jenna kind of wishes she’d left everything in boxes because then at least there wouldn’t be so much stuff everywhere.
She eats a light microwave dinner. It’s not because she’s lazy or doesn’t like to cook – she’s actually pretty decent at cooking – but for practical reasons. She won’t have to do dishes again and she won’t look like she’s exhausted, or at least, not any more than she already does from tidying up.
That said, she doesn’t change or redo her mascara or any other crazy teenage crap like that. Because he’s probably so not into that. Or whatever. When it gets close to eight – which is the time they have agreed upon, around eight – Jenna feels a little bit antsy. She suggested around eight rather than on eight because men are genetically engineered to be late. This way he can’t be. But now there’s a bigger time span to be nervous in. She opens Spotify and selects a playlist that has Passenger and Bon Iver on it because that’s quiet but not boring, and she pretends to listen to it. She doesn’t really listen though, because she’s distractedly looking out the window that’s at an angle from the street. Not the entire time, though, because it would be awkward if he saw that. It’s a little past eight when she looks away from the window to skip a song. When she looks back, she can see him walking up, and he sees her, too and waves. Jenna feels a bit busted and half awkwardly waves back and she can feel she’s blushing. Like, seriously?
She moves into the hallway and checks her reflection there, slapping her cheek. “Stop it,” she tells her reflection, and then moves to the door and opens it, smiling. “Hi.”
Alex is standing there with his hands in his pockets and a messenger bag hanging from his wrist. He looks much more casual than he did in the store, which must mean that he changed after work. What does this mean?! Jenna has to hand it to him though, he looks pretty damn attractive in a light blue longsleeve – fitted, the bastard – a grey zip hoodie, jeans, casual All Stars and a winter coat. Jenna curses herself for paying that much attention to what he’s wearing.
"I come in peace," Alex offers with a raised eyebrow while Jenna is looking at his shoes.
Jenna clears her throat and moves back to let him in. “Uh, yeah, sorry, I always judge a man by his shoes,” she says without looking up.
”And the fact that you’re letting me in means that I passed, right?” Alex grins as he moves indoors and closes the door, meanwhile peeling off his coat and hanging it on the coat rack without dropping his bag. It’s a miracle.
Jenna looks up now, having regained control of her face. “All Stars? Yes. Definitely passed.”
"Excellent," Alex replies and passes Jenna, leaving her to curiously follow him.
He makes his way into the living room, where he sits down on the couch and takes a box out of his messenger bag that he puts on the living room table. Jenna, who has just caught up with him, tilts her head.
"What’s in the box?"
"Did you just quote Se7en?" Alex asks and Jenna grins.
"Maaaybe. What’s in the baaaahx?"
"Insurance," answers Alex.
Jenna smirks, “This still sounds a bit like Se7en. Insurance for what?”
"In case we mess up," Alex replies and grabs the box as Jenna wheels herself over to it to look inside it. "Nah-ah. No peeking unless we blow up your kitchen," he says.
Jenna squints at him. “You said you were good at making chocolate chip cinnamon cookies.”
"A) I did not, and B) who says I’m going to do all the baking?" Alex says with a serious face.
His serious face breaks into a grin. “Don’t worry, I won’t let you blow up your kitchen. How are you, anyway? Been sleeping ok? Robberies are pretty stressful,” he asks.
"Oh," Jenna snorts, "I’ve had more stressful times in work than that, really."
"Really? What do you do?" Alex asks.
"I’m a copywriter," Jenna replies.
"Do they take deadlines so seriously that they hold a gun to your head and kill you if you don’t make them?" Alex chuckles at his own joke.
"I hope you’re better at baking than you are at puns," smirks Jenna, as she goes over to her computer. "Do we need a recipe?"
Alex gets up from the couch and nods. “I’m not quite as fluent at this as my sister is, though I’ve paid attention. She very often enlists me as a slave when we’re at our parents’ house for holidays.”
"I think I like your sister," Jenna replies as she hits print on the first chocolate chip cinnamon cookies recipe she finds and catches it fresh off the printer a minute later.
"Why, do you like enslaved men?" Alex teases.
"I don’t want to have this conversation with you," rebuttals Jenna, not without a smirk.
Still, that had better be the end of the conversation. To ensure as much, Jenna moves into the open kitchen opening cupboards to look for the right sized bowls, cups and measurement spoons. She puts them all out on the kitchen counter next to the mixer.
Alex looks around the room for a second and then takes the discarded and virtually unused desk chair against the wall next to her desk and pushes it into the kitchen.
Jenna looks over her shoulder, a curious smile on her face. “What are you doing?”
Alex sits down on the chair, letting it roll him further into the kitchen. “Figured I’d better level the playing field.”
Jenna’s lips twitch into a smile and she hands him the recipe, before retrieving their ingredients from the fridge and cupboards. “Ok, now what?”
“Mix flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt in medium bowl.”
”And I’m supposed to know how much because I look like the kind of person that has excellent baking skills?” Jenna replies.
Alex fakes a pout. “I’m so disappointed you don’t know. Three and a quarter cups of flour, one tablespoon of cinnamon – let’s make that one and a half – and one teaspoon of baking soda.”
Jenna pours the perfectly measured amounts from spoons and cups into a bowl and mixes it up a bit. When that’s done, she looks at Alex with a big bright smile on her face.
"That was the easiest part," Alex deadpans, "Now we get to the mixing with an electronic mixer part!"
Jenna’s eyes widen. “Oh, no. Not me.”
"And why is that?" Alex asks.
"Have you seen this kitchen?" she gestures around her, "I spent an hour and a half cleaning it. I’m not going to do the mixing.”
"We’re baking. We’re supposed to make a mess,” Alex starts but then raises an eyebrow, “Wait, you spent an hour and a half cleaning the kitchen?”
Stupid, Jenna. STUPID.
"Yeah, whatever. Ok, fine. What do I mix?" Jenna says hastily. Anything to avoid going into that conversation with him. No need to make him think she’s neurotic.
"One and a third cup of butter, one and a quarter cup of the granulated sugar and a cup of the light brown stuff."
Jenna measures all the sugars, puts them into a second bowl, and hesitantly cuts a piece of the butter, trying to keep it at arm’s length.
"The butter doesn’t bite…" Alex remarks.
"It’s disgusting," Jenna says.
When she dips the butter unceremoniously in the bowl, she makes a face, and quickly wipes her hands on the towel that hangs from one of the cupboard doors. “Eugh. Ok. And then?”
"The mixing part?" Alex nods towards the mixer, then looks back down to the recipe. "It says to mix until it turns into a puppy."
Jenna, now holding the mixer, turns to look at him and frowns.
Alex looks up and grins. “Fluffy.”
Jenna rolls her eyes at him and reluctantly puts the mixer into the bowl. She shrieks when she turns it on and the force of the thing almost knocks the bowl off the counter.
"Woah!" Alex laughs, lunging forward to grab the bowl with both hands. "I get why you never bake. You might want to put it on medium."
"You might want to have told me that before,” Jenna says through gritted teeth – Alex is still laughing – and flicks the power switch to a less aggressive position. It is alright after that. She hits his chest. “Don’t laugh,” she exclaims, but there is a distinct hint of laughter in her own voice.
"Just imagine the feeling of accomplishment you’ll get when these cookies will be awesome!" Alex says, still holding on to the bowl and keeping it in position on the countertop as Jenna mixes until it turns into puppies.
When they think it looks about right they add eggs and vanilla, and Jenna manages to successfully turn the mixer down a notch. Alex lets go of the bowl, confident enough that she won’t drop it.”Ok, get a spoon; we’re going to add in the chocolate. Probably should have bought chips instead of a whole bar, though.”
"You tell me to add cinnamon to my shopping basket but not that I need chips instead of a bar? You give crappy baking advice," Jenna replies.
"Shut up. Do you have a blender?"
Jenna gestures vaguely to the corner of the counter, where Alex spots the blender. He breaks the chocolate into four pieces, chucks them into the jug and turns the blender on for all of three seconds until the chocolate is chipped enough to add to their dough. He takes the jug over to the bowl and upturns it above the dough until there are no more chips left in the jug. “Ok, stir that through.”
Jenna does as she’s told, stirring the chocolate chips gradually through the cookie dough as Alex finds her baking sheet and sets the oven to preheat. He’s surprisingly good at understanding how the oven works; Jenna is kind of impressed. But then, men are supposed to be good at these things. Women are supposed to be a whole lot better at it than Jenna is though. Whatever. It’s not written anywhere that women should be great in the kitchen. These aren’t medieval times.
"Right, now all you have to do is drop a spoon of the stuff onto the baking sheet," Alex says encouragingly.
Jenna trusts herself to have the ability to screw even that up, but she proceeds anyway, with a great deal of care as Alex watches until the sheet is filled with little puddles of chocolate-chipped cookie dough. “There we go,” he says, like he’s the one feeling accomplished.
"There’s still a little bit of dough left," Jenna says.
"That’s the best part. You get to eat that." Alex replies.
"Isn’t that really bad for you?" Jenna asks as she watches Alex take the baking sheet and slide it into the oven.
"Probably," replies Alex as he sets the timer on the oven and turns it on.
”Hm,” is all Jenna replies and that is final, she’s going to eat the stuff.
Alex turns and clasps his hands together. “Now we wait for about ten minutes.”
And so they do, in the kitchen, eating tiny bits of cookie dough at the time. They talk about work, and while Jenna isn’t yet ready to tell him about all her insecurities, he discusses his hopes and dreams openly. He specialises in women’s rights and he’s all about education. It’s admirable to say the least. He sets up educational programs for women in third world countries, and he would go there to execute his plans too, but he loves home too much and he couldn’t leave his family behind. It makes Jenna feel inferior, because who the hell is she helping, but she doesn’t tell Alex.
It’s a fairly recurring theme in her life that she is not ready to share. Sometimes the meaning of it all seems lost to Jenna. She feels unaccomplished and aimless and past accomplishments are just that, been and gone; they mean very little to her now. Lemon tries to talk her out of feeling this way, but it’s like talking to deaf man’s ears. Jenna knows that she should be proud of all she’s done. That all that she has accomplished is a little bit more special because of her situation, but it just doesn’t feel that way.
Being in a wheelchair is like starting at minus one where others start at zero; not just physically. There’s a social stigma as much is there is inappropriate, condescending admiration, or the automatic assumption that a physical disability must also be paired with a mental deficit. But worse perhaps, is Jenna’s own feeling of inferiority: the feeling that she needs to compensate, that regular achievements aren’t enough. No matter how many people tell her how those are unnecessary thoughts and that her views of other people’s expectation are skewed, she can’t let it go.
No, Jenna is definitely not ready to share that with Alex. No matter how comfortable she already feels with him, she’s not that comfortable yet. Hence she lets him do most of the talking, because he seems happy to, and other people’s hopes and dreams are inspiring. She could actually listen to him talk for hours, but the oven’s alarm interrupts him in the middle of a story about how crazy his colleagues are.
Jenna goes to get the oven mitts and hands them to Alex. He’s still sitting in the chair and he has done remarkably well. It makes Jenna wonder if maybe she is just seeing what she wants to see, but a quick rationalisation tells her that he is indeed that perfect. “You know, I wouldn’t blame you if you got up to take those cookies out. The tray is bound to be hot.”
Alex scoffs. “No way. If I do it like this I can demand that you learn how to bake. Because you’re missing out,” he tells her, rolling his chair over to the oven again and pulling open the door and checking to see if the cookies are done. He decides they are and takes then out, somewhat clumsily making his way back to the counter.
It makes Jenna feel slightly better that he is having a harder time with it than she expected he would have. Still, he manages to put the sheet down on the countertop and moves them apart a little with quick, jerky pokes. “They look pretty good,” he says, and hands her the mitts back, which she just tosses onto the kitchen window sill that she grabbed them from.
"Smell pretty good too," Jenna replies, smiling.
"Told you it wasn’t that hard. Now we just have to wait for them to cool and then we can pass our final judgment on them."
"Are you then finally going to remove yourself from that chair? Because it’s making me a little upset that you appear to better at doing these things in a chair than I am. And I depend on the thing!" Jenna chuckles.
Alex cracks a smile. “I thought we’d already established that I’m a superior baker.”
Jenna mouths a ha-ha and then decides that the cookies have cooled down enough and grabs one. They’re still hot, but not enough to burn. She hands Alex one too and takes a bite out of her own. The inside is still soft and melty and hotter than she’d expected, so she has to turn away from Alex, half laughing as she nearly chokes on it.
Alex laughs. “Hot?”
"Nhmmm."Jenna replies, neither confirming nor denying anything until she turns back around with no proof that she might have been a little too fast trying those cookies. "They’re nice," she replies, trying to mask embarrassment.
Alex has long since caught on, but doesn’t act on it, instead taking a small bite of his and agrees that they’re indeed pretty good. “Do you have a Ziploc bag anywhere? We’ll put them in and bring them over to the living room, unless you want to sit around in the kitchen some more.”
Jenna shakes her head and pulls a bag from the top drawer on the right of her kitchen counter and holds it open and out to him. Alex scoops the cookies off the baking sheet and dumps them into the bag and then finally gets up from the chair, wheeling it back to the wall where it came from.
Jenna follows him into the living room and watches him walk around the room as she transfers from her chair to the couch. Alex stops in front of her bookcase and observes the contents: books and CDs and photos in simple IKEA frames. “Have you always been in a wheelchair?” he asks, his eyes resting on a photo of her and her parents in which she is very clearly not in one.
"No," she replies, "You’re wondering what happened," she determines.
Alex turns around and smiles a little. “If that’s ok,” he comments, sitting himself down in a chair across from her. “I mean, if you don’t want to talk about it…”
"It’s ok," Jenna replies with a smile and tosses him a cookie from the Ziploc bag. "I don’t mind. A lot of people think it offends me or something. But it’s about as rude as anyone asking how long someone has been wearing contact lenses."
Alex nods. “I guess it’s just a big mystery to all of us. I mean, you seem so well adjusted and we can all see the chair and all, but not the story behind it, I mean, how you do all that stuff so well and what happened. I guess most people assume things.”
"I know, I see it in people’s eyes, too, when they look. Wonder. Very often pity, too. And they assume but they’re afraid to ask; I’m glad you did," Jenna replies.
"I haven’t been in a chair all my life. I haven’t actually had one all that long, thinking about it, I probably got one when I was fifteen or something. Before that I pretty much walked everywhere. But I have always been disabled.”
"Always, as in, since you were born?" Alex asks.
"More or less. An oxygen deficit just after I was born caused a brain bleed," she replies, "Whatever brain cells control my motor skills in the lower half of my body were affected pretty badly. Basically I can’t control my muscles. Bad luck, I guess, or luck, because I’m still here," Jenna says.
"I’d call it good luck," smiles Alex. "So what happened when you were fifteen?"
"I had a lot of physical therapy when I was younger. Well, you can imagine, that not being in control of my muscles required exercise, because if you don’t use them, your muscles will get shorter and that makes things a whole lot harder. As a kid you kind of do what your parents tell you to do, so I went to therapy about 3 times a week and kept pretty in shape. Then I started getting older and my parents decided that I should be able to make my own decisions about it," Jenna explains. "I’m not sure that was an entirely good idea of them."
"I was in high school and I was kind of the awkward kid anyway. Quiet and a little boring I guess. I didn’t like any of the stuff the other kids liked. I didn’t want to try smoking, or drinking, and I had no interest in boys. So I got picked on sometimes," Jenna smiles, but it’s loaded. Sometimes is quite the understatement. She watches Alex’s face for a sign of the pity that she so hates so she can stop wanting to tell him things, and stop getting invested, but there’s nothing on his face but an interested look.
"I didn’t want anyone to have anything else to pick on me for, so I went to therapy a lot less. I didn’t want to be the girl who missed school because that felt like the one thing I had going for me. I loved to learn. Still do. But as I started skipping most of my physical therapy, I lost most of my stamina. By the time I was fifteen, I got tired really fast so I started using a wheelchair whenever I had to do anything long distance."
Alex’s eyes shift from Jenna to her wheelchair, parked beside the couch.
"Not exactly long distance, you’re thinking?" Jenna fills in for him, "I know, I stopped going entirely when I started university and by the time I was done with that I pretty much needed it whenever I went and even at home. I can still walk, more or less, but not far and it’s really hard."
”That was your choice, I take it?” he asks. “To stop?”
Jenna nods. “Yeah. Everything just costs me a lot of energy and I wanted to save that energy for the more important things like university and my job. Therapy just kind of didn’t fit in that picture anymore.”
Alex looks at her. “Do you ever regret it?”
"All the time." Jenna says quietly.
Alex seems to have to think about what he is going to say next and Jenna wonders if he think that she made a bad decision in quitting. But it has never really felt like quitting.
"Well, I think it’s a brave choice. And a well considered one. It’s hard enough getting a job these days. I can understand why you would want to focus on being able to put as much into it as you possibly can," he answers.
"I think that’s a well considered answer," Jenna replies. "You don’t have to worry about offending me by thinking that was a stupid thing to do. Most other people do. I’m pretty used to it."
"And you don’t have to be so defensive," Alex counters. "I meant what I said."
Jenna opens her mouth to say something else, but doesn’t. She does get defensive. But can anybody really blame her when she feels so judged? Everyone looks at her on the street, people have to go out of their way for her so often, little kids stare at her and ask their mom’s what’s wrong with her, there’s a special law for her that public establishments have to abide by just so she can live a normal life… of course she gets defensive.
"Sorry," she murmurs.
Alex smiles tentatively. “What for?”