Petra Kuppers

The Wheelchair Ramp

Joshi wheeled over rough wood. She reached down, felt the residual warmth of early fall in the grain. She pulled herself further along by grasping the metal railing. Ice cold sweet on her fingers. She pushed, and her wheels glided upward. She was on a wide ramp, an art project erected in this condemned block of wooden homes and churches, a Latino neighborhood of Grand Rapids. Her wheelchair reached the ramp’s apex, and its flow changed, a freewheeling moment of suspension unaided by her fingers. She laughed, roared along the open platform, wind in her black hair.

She climbed a last segment, and centered herself in the middle of the keep, snug and upright in her wheelchair’s seat, sides clasped by bright plastic. This last bit of the ramp led nowhere. It was suspended over empty ground, creeping alongside the old wooden building but extending beyond it. From here, she could look through the ramp’s metal railing to survey the land around her: empty buildings, shaped by age, now reshaped by installation artists. This was a fortuitous site to meet her blind date. Derelict elements artfully stripped and patched, now combined into rhythmic patterns of hope. Anything could happen here. New sensations could reach out of gaps and fissures. She checked her bright red watch. One minute to go.

Joshi looked away from the gently ticking watch. She checked the alignment of her booties on the footrest. Adjusted her scarf, fluffed her thick hair. Tugged the leather jacket tight around her torso. She looked sharp, she knew, sartorially savvy graduate student playing with the archetypes of power and sex. No oriental kitten here in red roar lipstick.

A number of people had stepped onto the platform just beneath her, along the first long incline. Would her date be among them? She saw two middle-aged women, sandaled, sweaters. No way. One lonely man with a camera, arranging shots of the crisscrossing wood and metal, crouching and skipping. Unlikely. A family: man, woman, two blonde kids tiredly drooping in their parents’ clutch. And there she was. Yes. She was bound to be her blind date, yes please.

A large woman, white like so many of the visitors here around art-city, but marked with tribal signs Joshi could decode: a large tattoo in her neckline, single color red linen top under bright fleece jacket. Black leggings with pleather inserts. Voluptuous lines.

Joshi’s hands twitched just looking. She waved. The woman waved back, not fazed at all, no double take visible. Joshi had identified herself as a wheelchair-user and a grad student, had given that much at least, before putting her lot into the electronic hat of the blind date lottery. She had no need to see pity blossom in anybody’s eyes, old stories that were not hers draped around her by foreign minds. This woman looked like she could deal. Joshi let out a deep breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

The woman’s boots clomped up the ramp to the aerie. Joshi felt the rhythm of the woman’s legs in her seat, the ship-like motion of wood’s give, translated into sensitive sit bones. She watched the vision in red and black climb to her, leaning into the grade.

And there Joshi was, her hands reaching out from the house that the twister ate, in Oklahoma, so many summers ago. That day, she had been the girl cut by the edge, left alone and crying. Her parents, who had made their trek to Vietnamese orphan homes, and who had held out their sweet lined hands, now lay crushed beneath metal spikes and rafters. Joshi’s teenage hands climbed and climbed, spiders concentrating on scratching, sound-making, forward motion. That night, Joshi had lost her legs to metal and wood, to the crunch of ceilings coming down like pistons. She had lost feet, calves, knees, thighs. Had lost ghosts of her white family. Had gained hardware, rubber, screws, new knobs and gears.

 The spider child had crawled, mewled, protested and rallied, till the ceiling burst open when the rescue crew found her. She had reached, and hands had come down past lathe and plaster, had grasped, pulled, and blankets, fluids, time, time, more time. White time. Red time. Hospital time.

Her favorite nurse, LeighAnn, warm voice and mother song, telling her stories of smoking weed on the back of corvettes at Wayne State tailgate parties, of going out with football stars, stories of nightblack yards and velvet skin.

On the ramp, Joshi blinked, focused on the wetness of rusty water on her hand, the drizzle on her neck, like her therapist had taught her. Come back, girl. Shh, girl. Here, girl.

She twisted her wheels against one another, a ballet in place, a racehorse nibbling at the stable door. The woman, her blind date, was coming nearer, and Joshi liked the dark hair, the dark eyes, the carefully shaped eyebrows. The bosom firm, encased, the bow of a boat under the red fabric, parting the mists. Joshi smiled now, made sure to keep herself open, and in the now. But then, for one second, she looked beyond the approaching woman, and her eyes climbed up the exposed sinews of the condemned house skeletons around her, climbed their lathe layers one by one, a mathematics of escape.

The twister had held the house for a short time in its eye, in its spiral coil. Joshi saw the tentacle of bricks and wood hovering above her, every single one heavy enough to crush her, to end her probing gaze. The bricks had spun on in their complex dance, energies rushing out and up. The tornado’s snout had sucked in chairs and wardrobes, splintering wood into eye-piercing shards. The circle hole in the sky had sucked, and sucked, and she had been horizontal for a while, her hands entwined in the pipes of the kitchen sink, till the eyes closed, and the column collapsed over her pelvis.

Her blind date. She had shifted space, was now here, like the girl in Ringu, jump cut.

“Hello. Joshi?”

A melodious voice asked, reminding her of LeighAnn, of painkillers, of laughter, of boys, of cars on wet fall nights in the drive-in. Joshi nodded, her larynx dry and closed tightly shut. The woman opposite her seemed to know.

“I am Lorna. Nice to meet you. What a great place for a date!”

Joshi had nodded, eyes pleading, wide, her hands fluttering like hummingbirds at her side. Her voice was gone, gone, time split.

Lorna shimmered deep inside herself, felt her fascia unclasping. Long sheets of fiber reached into her muscles, membranes connected sectors of pulsing tissue. She was walking, stopping, standing. Her feet heaved up, down, in a rhythm that was distinctly her own, slight hitch here, the self-consciousness of successful physical therapy.

The slight incline of the ramp had put extra pressure on her calves, as her figure bent into the lean. She felt the blood pulsing there, too. Every step massaged her muscles from inside. Blood beat. Lymph moved. Her juices, coursing. She let her fingers trail along the rough railing. Cool steel. The tiny dimples of beginning rust offered texture.

Every sensation was intense, new, still full of the excitement of reconnecting nerves. Before she lost herself in her body’s spectacular alignment, though, she looked up, at the young woman in the intricate wheelchair, perched high up on the top ledge of the ramp. Lorna liked the wheelchair’s clean geometry, its metal lines and steel origami. She also liked what she saw of the young woman: dark leather, tight posture, fingers on the wheel’s rim. A black mane cascading over the black leather.

A motorcycle fantasy flitted over Lorna’s memory screen. She had always liked the fast ones, wheels and dust.

She took the next step, upward. The wood under her feet showed the memory of trees, the branch holes and contours of age rings. The tree had grown for a long time, before being hewn down and planed into wide sheets.

Lorna flashed back to her own wood memory, to the moment when her blood stained and watered moon canals, whorls of ancient grain preserved in man-made stone. It had been concrete that crushed her. Concrete pressed between wooden plates, imprinted with the growths and patterns of a tree’s fingerprint.

In the blink of an eye, Lorna was back between the pancaked layers of a grey, bare New Zealand corridor. It had happened on her way to the swimming pool in Christchurch. The smell of chlorine in her nose. The moist warmth of the heated rooms heavy, condensing on her glasses. She had walked through a modernist ode to progress and efficiency, grey, flat, raw material brutal and real all around her. She couldn’t wait to escape into the weightlessness of the water.

Then it had happened, quick and slow at the same time, in a dizzying heave. The corridor wall had shifted toward her, jump cut, both left and right, converging on her. The wood-patterned concrete had come nearer, ever nearer, to the polyester of her swimming suit, to her painted toes, to her outstretched hands, closing in with every heave and tremor of the earth. Smaller chunks had arrived first, had pressed first cool and moist, then harder, into her limbs. Their sharp edges had ground their own imprints into her yielding flesh. Eventually, her skin had split.

Lorna rarely had flashbacks, and this wasn’t quite one, either. There was no panic, no sense of doom or hopelessness. She walked on the ramp, anchored. She had escaped that pool hallway, had been pulled from the earthquake rubble, after many hours staring at the ever encroaching cold grey fake concrete wood. Fake. Concrete. Wood.

That had been a long time ago. It was past. But here were the patterns anew beneath her feet, real wood, for certain, in its own raw authenticity. There was this kinesthetic, inward feeling of disorientation, the slight pull of unusual pressure on the backs of her legs. She tried to think about new lovers, not about old blood in chlorine water. Lorna was ok. She was ok.

No. She wasn’t. No. But she had tools. She breathed. Stopped the ascent. Assembled her tools. There, in a clock’s tick, as she wasn’t ok, she fled to the warmth of the therapy pool, on her back, no weight on or in her, floating, floating. Open. Breathe. Feel the water.

The soft rain on her face helped. It cooled her. Lorna was fine, just fine. She stepped forward again, the moment of hesitation gone, conquered.

Ahead was Joshi. Ahead was a new person to explore. Joshi’s wheelchair fascinated Lorna, and she longed to explore its contours with her hands, on someone else’s body, a body molded by fissures and angles of metal and plastic. She longed to feel the plastic seat radiating a flesh bottom’s heat.

That’s why she had entered the date lottery – to meet a wheelchair-using woman, to see how life could go on, how wholeness could take on new meanings. She had earned her strange desires. And she would confess, eventually, once the fantasy liaison became more than a fetish meeting, if and when this young woman reached deeper inside her. Eventually.

Her fingers were again on the railing. They followed her momentum, took direction from steel’s flowing melt. Upward.

“I love installation art.”

Lorna did, she really did. She was happy to say it out loud. She wanted to make this beautiful creature in front of her understand. Lorna loved installations, their offerings to her body. She travelled far and wide to see the kind of installations that offered a new home to a body chopped up, mediated, transformed. Lorna wanted to inhabit. To find the angular walls of home. To run from the walls. To touch and lick and squish herself close.

She spoke again, as the young woman in front of her was silent, but attentive.

“I love it. I am so glad you chose this site. Thank you.”

Joshi still couldn’t speak, but her face was open, upward, glowing. The woman called Lorna seemed to see her.

The woman called Lorna knelt down, right there, on the wet wood of the ramp, out over the street. She knelt, and it was as if a wave of red and black rolled over the ramp, surrounded Joshi, warm and close, disorienting.

“It’s ok. I am an architect. I am a surgeon. I am a poet. I am a dreamer.”

Had she really said that? Had she? Joshi blinked, saliva flowing gently, slowly, a new river deep inside. In front of her, Lorna blinked, gently, held herself at bay, hovering. A dream woman. Was she here? She had dark eyes, lashes like iron posts, an offering of sanctuary. Joshi tried to speak, couldn’t, felt for her parents’ love, couldn’t, thought of the maze of masonry and kitchen pipes, and the dancing, dancing bricks.

In front of her, Lorna’s hands sunk into the wood of the ramp. Joshi saw Lorna’s fingernails lengthen, grow lines and whorls. Hands folded right into the wood grain. Now she knew what to do, how to respond to the invitation. Joshi pulled forward, her wheelchair wheels, sensitive and light, curling into Lorna’s palm. They fit as if into grooves. Joshi felt her pelvis widen, sink, a metal filigree that began to unclasp from the bottom of her wheelchair seat. The pelvis metals drilled down, wings and cantilevers, angles. Lorna’s head reached up, her throat’s tender underside open and warm. Joshi leaned in, her lips finding the warm rosy skin ahead of her. Lorna’s head slowly came down, her dark hair cascading into dark dogwood twigs. Their mouths met. Copper. A tiny clash of enamel.

Metal and wood, they shifted into their puzzle form, clicking into place. They molded, like a ship’s plank bowed over steam. Curve and angular containment. The rain started, and the ramp’s planks steamed into mist.

Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She is a Professor at the University of Michigan, and teaches on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. Her most recent poetry collection is PearlStitch (Spuyten Duyvil: 2016). Her stories have appeared in Sycamore Review, Visionary Tongue, Future Fire, Capricious and Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction. Her first fiction podcast, Ice Bar, is forthcoming with PodCastle. She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias, an international disability culture collective. She lives in Ypsilanti with her poet partner and collaborator, Stephanie Heit.