“The Aide” by Erika Price

“We went as far as the car would take us.” Radhiyaa said into the phone. Diana was kicking at the dash and ignoring the clipped, incomprehensible words coming out of the speaker.

“Yeah,” Radhiyaa said into the phone, “Yeah. The water, it’s too high. It’s. No. There’s no way. Yeah.”

Diana’s father Brian was yelling meaningless, overly practical advice at her but refusing to actually leave work early and pick the girls up. And Radhiyaa knew, after five years of acquaintance with the man, that there was no reasoning or reassuring him, no way to get him to shut up – she just had to let him speak his peace and then get off the line as soon as possible. So she let him go on like that and looked ahead, where the murky river water slapped against the hood of the vehicle.

They went as far across the bridge as they could. Which wasn’t as far as Radhiyaa thought — she’d been able to ford the river plenty of times, but that was in her dad’s Jeep, after the short water burst of a summer storm. Those storms didn’t deposit all that much water, really; they just looked ferocious for the few moments they came down. But now it was spring, bone-chilling April, and the melting snow and slush was mixing with the rain that had been going at a steady spray for twenty hours now, goddamn it, and the river was flooded and the car was stuck.

“Goddammit,” Diana kept saying, slamming her soft, broad palms on the glass of the passenger’s side window. “Goddammit,” followed by a deep, wet-sounding sight.

Radhiyaa said good-bye to Diana’s father and hung the phone up. Then she stared at Diana’s face, pleading for advice and forgiveness. A plan. Diana always had a plan for how the girls would spend their time.

Diana, with the thick brow bone and the inscrutably pissed-off eyes. Radhiyaa didn’t understand how people could look in those eyes and think that Diana was simple, that her personhood was attenuated in some way. It was all because of her heavy electric wheelchair. It would be different if the chair was a manual, Diana told Radihyaa once. If her disability were different, if her chair were manual, then Diana would have strong arms and a powerful, sinewy chest. It would make her look leanly muscular and capable and thus, to most people’s minds, halfway smart.

But she wasn’t in a manual. She was an electric, and so strangers came up to her at restaurants and malls and spoke in very slow, loud voices, telling her they were proud. “Look at you sitting up so straight! Do you want a sticker?” a woman at her community college had said once.

“I want a ravenous grizzly bear that will carry me around and eat people who ask me shit like that,” was what Diana had said.

Diana was full of imagined scenarios that served only to get her pissed off. How tall she would be, if she could stand. How much money should would make if her arms didn’t tire from four hours of work. Where they would be, by now, if the car hadn’t sunk into the water.

“What did he say,” Diana spat finally, frustration making her tongue thick.

“He said to put it in neutral and get out, try to pull it back out the way we came,” Radhiyaa said.

Diana scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Impossible. How deep is the water anyways?”

Radhiyaa rolled the window and leaned far out, her chest, neck, and head all the way out of the car. There was a black sedan behind them. It sat idling for a while, the unseen driver watching the girls in their peril but not helping.

Radhiyaa leaned as far as she could safely go and, with a shudder of hesitation, plunged her arm into the water. She felt around in the muck. The water was dark but not quite muddy; the river was still flowing along on either side of them. The car had gotten about halfway across the low bridge before the river swept under the wheel bearings and the engine groaned off.

Diana was still scoffing. Radhiyaa opened the door and shoved her foot into the dark wet deep. Then she rose to a standing position, her faux-leather boots absolutely soaked and filled with cold muck.

“What are you-” Diana said, but there was the answer to her question, standing and staring right at her. Two and a half feet of water, enough to pass her aide’s knees.

“The car will just slide forward into the river if I put it in neutral,” Radhiyaa said. She felt calm, now that she was soaked. The water came down from above, too, soaking her headscarf and sweater. “Your chair makes the car too heavy.”

Diana pinched the bridge of her nose and said, “I know, I know. So what do we do?”

Radhiyaa was already walking around the back of Diana’s dad’s Aerostar. She slid the big back door open, letting water splatter the fuzzy grey carpet, and began unhooking the clamps that held the wheelchair in place.

“What, are you crazy?” Diana said. She covered the controls of her chair possessively, fiercely. “I can’t go out in that!”

Her aide shrugged and lowered the ramp. “Come on, it’s not so deep,” she coaxed. “We’ll take the road back up to Bagley.”

Diana hesitated a moment, staring down at the river that flowed under and around the vehicle. Most of the ramp was above the surface of the water, and the bridge was on a steep-ish incline, so the road behind them was high and relatively dry.

“This is a $3000 fuckup,” Diana told Radhiyaa, and followed her into the water and back the way they had come.

 

***

 

Radhiyaa had been Diana’s aide since the middle of high school. An unlikely pair at first, Diana being a militant atheist and Radhiyaa the president of the Muslim Students Coalition, they were seated together in health class and became fast friends.

On the day that the health teacher discussed contraceptive options, Diana had turned to Radhiyaa and said, “It’s funny, we’re both getting ignored equal amounts.”

Radhiyaa had drawn back and whispered, “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Diana said, thinking, “Everybody assumes that people in wheelchairs don’t have sex. They think there’s no reason for a sad little sexless baby angel like me to even be here. And they assume you’re like betrothed to some guy, and you’re a total prude who’ll never have an orgasm in her life. But they’re wrong on both.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Radhiyaa whispered, but she could feel her face smiling and her cheeks heating up, which sent Diana into sharp, bitter-sounding guffaws.

The health instructor came by and shot them a look, but he walked away just as quickly and never came back, even as the two girls continued talking. As the class wore on and condoms were passed out, Radhiyaa and Diana’s row never got any, and so Radhiyaa got to thinking that maybe Diana was right. They talked on and on, as the condoms were rolled over bananas, as the images of Chlamydia-infected genitals were projected on the walls, as the Christian kids rose their hands to talk about their virginity pledges. They talked and Diana snickered loudly, without reservation, and nobody scolded them, because they were perfect sexless baby angels.

The bell rang, and Diana yelled out, “Excuse me Mr. Thornbush, do you have any dental dams though? Me and Miss Hasan would really like some. It’s kind of an emergency.”

That was when Radhiyaa first felt pulled into Diana’s orbit.

 

***

 

The girls pushed through the water and reached the top of the road. This part of the Metroparks had wide, steep streets abutted by thick forest, and there were no paths or sidewalks they could access. The ground was too muddy for Diana’s weighty chair. Radhiyaa nodded to the hill that careened up through the side streets, leading to Fowles Road. From there they could make their way to Bagley and Diana’s apartment.

“I can’t climb that fucking hill,” Diana told her. “I’m at half battery.”

Radhiyaa sighed and stepped behind the chair. She took a firm grip and leaned her chest in, pressing against where Diana’s Batz Maru backpack hung.

“I’ll help push,” she said. She adjusted her hijab. “We probably won’t die.”

A car came down the hill and rushed past them. It drove partway through a puddle and splattered Diana in the face and Radhiyaa in the chest as it went by. The rubber handles of the chair became slippery in Radhiyaa’s hands.

“FUCK-” Diana began, but then Radhiyaa laughed instead, clutching at her face and reaching over the seat to touch her friend.

 

***

 

A year after the health class incident, Radhiyaa finished up her State Tested Nurse’s Aide certification. Diana just so happened to be in desperate need of after-school help. Her old aide had retired and her father had picked up a second job in the evenings; There were no wheelchair accessible busses in the school district, and Diana was hell-bent on not taking school transport. So she hired Radhiyaa.

It was a fun, easy job at first. Radhiyaa couldn’t believe her good luck. She got her own set of keys to Brian’s van, got to drive to and from school every day. Even better, she relished the opportunity to brush off her helicoptering parents — helping Diana was a permanent alibi. An excuse to stay out late after school, a way to meet boys or to slip away to concerts. If Radhiyaa was being honest, she relished any opportunity to get out of the house.

And Diana was the perfect client. She had a thick binder full of CDs in the front of the van, loaded with cool, pissed-off seeming music that Radhiyaa had never heard. Diana always had cash for McDonald’s or Starbucks; her appetite for food and pleasure was insurmountable; she was endlessly chatty and bitchy in a way that attracted and disgusted Radhiyaa all at once. All Diana ever wanted to do was cruise the town, sipping Frappuccinos and yelling at the boys and girls on the cross country team as they ran alongside the road.

“WOO YEAH, NICE ASSES!” Diana would yell. “Tell them Radi, tell them what nice asses they have!”

Radhiyaa would press a fry to her lips, pretend to think, and then daintily roll the window down. She’d force the words out like vomit, “NICE SHORTS! WE CAN SEE YOUR SCROTE, DUDE!” and Diana would laugh and laugh.

 

***

 

As they went up the hill, another car came up from behind them. Radhiyaa strained into the chair, her calves burning, sweat pouring from her armpits, rain drumming on her head. Diana had the chair on its safest speed and pushed the joystick all the way forward.

“Are you doin’ okay?” Diana asked.

Radhiyaa sputtered, “Yes!!” and pushed harder, faster, knowing they had nowhere to go but up; there was nothing else they could do. If she let go and the chair tumbled backward, they both would be wrecked.

The car cut close as it drove up behind them. The mirror nearly clipped Diana on the head; she ducked and let out a funny-sounding “Oof!” at the surprise.

A red-headed kid with an oversized cap was looking back at them from the passenger’s side window. At the last moment before the car disappeared over the hill he looked at Radhiyaa and said, raising his eyebrows, “Hey, nice ass!”

Radhiyaa couldn’t stop to scream at him, or even contemplate it and be pissed off. She just looked down and pushed forward, puffing air past her lips.

In the car, it would have taken fifteen minutes to get to Diana’s apartment. Once there, Radhiyaa would have helped Diana use the bathroom, maybe showered her, then she would have dropped the keys on the kitchen table and gone out for the bus. She would have been home by eight at the latest. Now as they walked through the gravel and mud to Fowles Road, past the big historical houses and the barn with the fat horses, both girls agreed it would be an hour or two.

“Call your mom,” Diana said. “She’ll be off soon right?”

Radhiyaa shook her head. “It’s Tuesday. She has patients coming till eight.”

Ever since her parent’s divorce, Radhiyaa’s mom spent as many nights and weekends as she could at her practice. They were shedding money; it came off them both in big wads, or so it seemed. Radhiyaa had been working as many hours with Diana as possible. Five years out, it wasn’t so fun anymore.

They went around the corner, where a sidewalk began at last. The glow of the shopping center was beckoning them from far down the street; otherwise the road was unlit, the sidewalk dangerously sloping and bumpy in places. Houses with long, dark green lawns flanked them on either side. All was still and quiet except for the lapping of the rain on their heads and shoulders.

 

***

 

Diana’s needs had waxed and waxed until one day they eclipsed Radhiyaa’s life. Brian worked later and later, struggling to support them, so there was no one around to get Diana undressed for bed. Radhiyaa started doing it with her head turned away and her stomach flexed tight. She was afraid to see her friend’s nakedness, afraid of what she might feel, good or bad.

But once that barrier had been breached, more came crashing down. One day Diana invited Radhiyaa on a shopping trip. They took the big changing room, filled it up with clothes for both of them. Radhiyaa dressed and undressed Diana a dozen times, and the mirrors were everywhere so there was no avoiding it. Then Radhiyaa stripped too. Diana advised Radhiyaa to buy a red midi skirt with gold piping, and a green scarf embroidered with peacocks and chickens. At the cashier she passed her credit card over the pile of both their clothes, not saying a word. Radhiyaa felt grateful, but with a pang of dull guilt.

After that came helping Diana use the bathroom. Then came helping Diana use her catheter, hooking Diana up to her breathing machine at night, and driving Diana to doctor’s visits. Radhiyaa helped lift Diana into the hospital beds, slid bed pans beneath her, rolled Diana’s t-shirt up so the echocardiogram technologist could get a good position.

It was hard to resent, since every demanding hour was paid. And sometimes, Diana just wanted to drive around or sit in her living room and watch America’s Next Top Model or Survivor reruns while sipping her dad’s Svedka. And Radhiyaa loved her friend. Sometimes, she’d take a sip or two of the vodka, pull the ottoman up real close to Diana’s chair, and let her head rest on Diana’s shoulder.

Sometimes, it was lovely to know someone so intimately. Radhiyaa began to sense and anticipate Diana’s bodily needs. She learned how often Diana needed to pee, how long it took after having a drink. Radhiyaa’s body began to tense up and ache when Diana’s body grew stiff. She began to get sleepy as she watched her friend slip into unconsciousness under the relaxing hum of the breathing machine. Diana’s needs became Radhiyaa’s needs; their lives took on the same arduous pace. An insult to Diana’s intelligence was like a slap in Radhiyaa’s face.

The years went on like that. And all of a sudden, Diana and Radhiyaa were the only people in their graduating class who still lived at home.

 

***

 

They walked past the strip malls. The massage parlor with the dark windows, the oil change place, the little jewelry store, the brightly lit but crowded store that sold Precious Moments figurines.

“This fucking blows,” Diana said. She shivered. Radhiyaa went to drape her jacket on her, “No. Don’t do that.”

“I’m fine, I’m plenty warm,” Radhiyaa said.

“No you’re not.”

“I am! I am! Look at you!” Radhiyaa pinched Diana’s forearm. It was covered in goose bumps. “See?”

Diana crossed her arms and looked out into the street. “I’m fine. I’m the one that decided not to wear a sweater, I should suffer.”

Diana was always getting cold lately. She shivered in air conditioned rooms, or when there was a breeze or a fan on. At her last five doctor’s appointments, her blood count had been low. That was the way it went with these conditions. Radhiyaa knew she was supposed to emotionally prepare for it, to anticipate a slow, piecemeal decline, but she hadn’t.

“You didn’t know you’d be walking this far in the rain.” Radhiyaa said, and pushed the jacket forward. “And it’s my fault the car is stuck. Take it. Come on.”

Diana shook her head. “It’s hideous and I don’t want it. Oxblood pleather? No way Radi.”

Radhiyaa had the jacket balled up in her hands. She said, “Oh? You don’t want it because it’s ugly? So I should just fling it in this puddle, then?”

She stopped and dangled the jacket over the curb. Maybe it was out of style, but Radhiyaa had worn the jacket since senior year and Diana had never said a thing. The side of the road was a rushing, loud stream. The jacket might even be swept away a few blocks, if she dropped it down.

“I mean, go ahead,” Diana told her.

“Oh yeah? It’s so ugly that you would rather freeze than wear it? You’d rather see it on the side of the road?”

Her teeth clenched, Diana said, “I’d rather not see it at all.”

Radhiyaa almost let it drop. She almost let them both freeze. But she could hear Diana’s chattering teeth, see her body clenching and unclenching, and it made her so pissed that she stomped over and dropped it on Diana’s lap.

“You’re not going to die over this!” She yelled, her voice almost hysterical. The older she got, the more intently she focused on Diana’s health, the more Radhiyaa reminded herself of her mother. That was the part she resented most. Not the time, not the occasional grossness of the job, but the caring that had stuffed her mind and heart full so there was no room for anything else.

 

***

 

A few days after graduation, Radhiyaa and Diana had both gone to a bonfire party. It was Radhiyaa’s day off, and Diana had another aide there, a middle-aged woman who spoke very little and filled her solo cup over and over again with rum punch. Radhiyaa forced herself to stand by the fire, out in the lawn where Diana’s chair could not go. Diana was stuck on the deck. But it was Radhiyaa’s day off, and high school was done, and a pretty boy with a mole on his cheek was smiling at her and asking where she’d be going for college.

Even with her back turned to Diana, Radhiyaa could sense that her friend’s bladder was full and that she was freezing. It had been an unseasonably chilly May night. She was about to tell the boy she’d been accepted at Chapel Hill, and that she wanted to study pre-med, but then she turned and saw Diana in the flickering porch lights, her fingers nearly blue.

And Radhiyaa had gone up and draped her jacket over her friend’s lap. And later, when Diana’s aide proved too drunk to drive, Radhiyaa had lowered the van’s ramp and driven her home. One the way out she’d kissed the boy on the cheek and said that she was staying in town for a few years. Going to the community college, working for Diana while she got her Associate’s degree.

That night Radhiyaa had lifted Diana into bed and shushed her while she moaned and apologized.

“I’m sorry,” Diana sputtered, her eyes not looking angry at all, just red and vacant. “I didn’t mean to ruin your night.”

“Stop it,” Radhiyaa told her, stroking her forehead. “I decided to do this.”

“Don’t be a fucking martyr,” Diana said. “You have your own life, Hasan.”

So Radhiyaa leaned in and kissed her full on the mouth.

“I know,” she whispered into Diana’s lips.

 

***

 

When Diana’s father Brian finally came home, it was 11:30 pm. Diana was in the bedroom in her night gown, the breathing machine hooked up to her face, pumping air loudly with Radhiyaa curled up in a ball beside it. Radhiyaa was wearing a long t-shirt that belonged to Diana, her wet hair wrapped up in a towel. The shower was still misty, the bathroom still humid. Diana and Radhiyaa’s wet clothes were strewn all around the room, the Batz Maru backpack had become a pillow for Radhiyaa’s head.

Brian picked up Radhiyaa’s jacket, which was bunched up at the foot of Diana’s bed. Then he bent down and grazed Radhiyaa’s shoulder with his index and middle finger. She sprung awake immediately, her brown eyes big like walnuts.

“Radi,” he whispered over the humming of the machine, “It’s late. We need to go pick up the car.”

The girl nodded and rose. She slipped on a pair of flip-flops (also Diana’s), put on her hijab, and followed him to the apartment complex’s parking garage, yawning and wiping crust from the corners of her mouth. Brian stood next to his car waiting for her. “What are you looking at?” she said.

He gave a fake little laugh and rubbed at his thinning grey hair. “We don’t pay you enough,” he told her.

Radhiyaa made a wry little smile and slipped into the vehicle. “Don’t worry about it.”

They drove into the park, Brian’s headlights cutting through the shadowy trees. As they neared the flooded bridge, the car came upon two deer standing in the middle of the road. One was thick in the middle with an unborn fawn. Brian slowed, still idling forward, and the pregnant fawn loped away, the younger, sprightlier deer trailing after it.

He parked the vehicle and they slunk into the water. Radhiyaa winced at the cold but pressed on, the t-shirt trailing behind her in the water. Brian slipped off his shoes and went barefoot. They stood in water up to their waists at the front of the car, nodded in the darkness, and pushed with all they had.

The Aerostar barely budged at first, then Brian let out a low, oddly youthful groan and leaned down lower, and it began to roll up. They huffed and leaned in, and Radhiyaa imagined she was pushing Diana’s chair up the hill again. A few inches of ground were lost to them as Radhiyaa stumbled on the pavement, the sandals failing to find purchase. Brian looked at her, concerned, his hair rumpled and wild, but Radhiyaa did not let phase her.

“Keep going,” she yelled, and they pushed and groaned and sweat until the van curved up off the bridge, onto the relative dryness of the road. They stood there, hands on hips, breathing and smiling at each other.

Radhiyaa dangled the keys in her hand. “I’ll drive it back to the apartment and then you’ll give me a ride home, yeah?”

Brian nodded. He rumpled his hair. Then something in the girl’s face caught his attention. He grew contemplative. “No,” he said. “No, you take it home. You’re the only one that uses it anymore.”

Radhiyaa’s shoulders dropped an inch, and she nodded.

“You’re coming back tomorrow anyway, right?” he asked.

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“I mean, you’re practically the only aide she works with anymore…” he stared into the woods.

The Metroparks were densely populated with deer, black squirrels, possums, ducks, the occasional fox. It was unlit, dangerous going at night. He avoided the park roads altogether. But the girls loved driving there. Diana was always calling Radhiyaa up first in the in the morning, saying they should go exploring in the park. They drove around for hours, watching the trees whip past, screaming at runners, sipping coffee or Snapple lemonade and amusing each other. It was a massive waste of gas, at a time when Brian could seldom afford it, on top of Radhiyaa’s hourly expense. But something told Brian it was worth it. So he’d never said anything.

“You’re the only one that drives the damn thing,” he said to her. “And you could get to our house quicker if you had it. Why don’t you keep it?”

Radhiyaa nodded, avoiding eye contact. Then she brightened a little, and her nodding became more vigorous.

“I mean,” Brian said, “It’s the family car, I always said. And you’re like, or you could be, part of the family.”

She gave him one more nod, brisk and almost businesslike, and slipped into the car. He was impressed at her three-point turn, and how swiftly she disappeared into the dark as she drove away. At the next traffic light, he was behind her, and could see the glow of her phone as she stared down at it. When he returned to the apartment, he peered in on his daughter, and found her awake, breathing through the tube, staring down at her phone smiling, her thumbs pecking away excitedly.


Erika hs

Erika Price is a writer and social psychologist in Chicago. Erika’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Chicago Reader, and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize.

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