Patrick Sutherland was about to do something he had never done before. Something he never thought was possible. Something he had only dreamed of.
On a chilly November evening, at the age of thirty-one, he was going to go on a date.
At least he thought it was a date – or rather he was hoping it was a date. But what if she didn’t think it was a date? What if he had misunderstood her invitation?
But how could that be? She had invited him to her apartment so she could cook dinner. Isn’t that what people did on a date? Although he had no real-life experience with such things, in the movies that would be considered a date……probably.
Of course, being this happy made his insecurities rage. Patrick was convinced he was a person who did not deserve to have good things happen to him. Although it seemed illogical, he had no choice in the matter. He was frequently overwhelmed by feelings of inferiority.
But he knew that he had to try to fight against the negative thoughts that constantly flooded into his head. He tried to slow down his breathing to make himself relax, but it was always the same. The fear and the dread of rejection made him feel flush as his pulse raced in response to his panic. It was an automatic reaction to any temporary joy he experienced.
It took a little time, but eventually, the unpleasant thoughts began to subside, and his mind started to clear. In his heart, he just wanted her to give him a chance – however, even though she was the most accepting individual he’d ever met, he wasn’t sure it could happen.
Alicia Paulson had become the most significant person in his life, but she didn’t know that because he had not worked up the nerve to tell her.
They had lived across the hall from each other for more than two years, but he was afraid to let her see who he really was. Although she was kind and considerate, that could all evaporate if she saw what his life was really like. And especially now with Christmas coming, he would soon have to endure the depression that swept over him each year at this time.
As an adult, Patrick had always been alone, and he just assumed it would remain that way for the rest of his life. He couldn’t change the past so he felt like he had no choice but to let it control the present.
That was why he considered this to be one of the most important nights of his life. Alicia’s invitation to dinner had him scared to death, but his loneliness was so crushing he was willing to face his fear. He was supposed to be there at seven, so he had plenty of time to take a shower. A twelve-minute shower.
Patrick knew that Alicia got home from work each night around six. He always sat quietly by his door listening for the distinctive sound of her broad-based cane striking the floor as she slowly made her way to her apartment. It provided him with a degree of comfort to know that she was always across the hall. In some small way, it made him feel less alone in the world.
That was why he desperately wanted to try with Alicia. There was something that was so appealing about her that it gave him the courage to attempt to step out of the protective shell he’d lived in for years. He now found himself clinging to the hope that perhaps he had met someone who would not judge him because of his disorder.
Earlier in the week when she asked him over for dinner, Patrick was shocked. He couldn’t imagine why she was interested in him, and it took a lot of convincing for him to believe that she really wanted to spend time together.
Patrick had never thought he could experience happiness with another person, but being with Alicia made him feel more at ease. Most of his tics relaxed and the compulsions were slightly easier to manage. Of course, because he cared about her, he was tormented with thoughts that he didn’t deserve the attention of someone as wonderful as her. It had been twenty-two years since the incident happened, and in all that time no one had shown the slightest interest in him as a person.
Alicia always knew when Patrick was at home, which was most of the time since he rarely was left his apartment. She would frequently hear him locking and re-locking his front door over and over again. Always twelve times. Not eleven. Not thirteen. Always twelve. She remembered how last Christmas everything seemed to get worse for him. She only saw him once during the entire month of December. It was almost as if he was hiding.
Alicia worried continually about Patrick. She couldn’t explain it, but she had developed feelings for him that made her want to know him better. Maybe, she thought, if she understood what he was struggling with she might be able to help him. He appeared to be a vulnerable person who was tormented by something mysterious. Something known only to him. While she had no interest in being nosey, she did want to see if she could make him happier.
However, she had to admit to herself that it could be her own loneliness that was playing a part in her thinking.
Ever since her horrific car accident at the age of nineteen, people had treated her differently. They reacted to her as she was nothing more than a victim. She could often sense their pity and sympathy as they stared at her cane and the deeply etched scars on her face. But for some reason, Patrick had never done that. He had not reacted to her physical challenges or appearance any more than he had to the fact that she happened to be African American. He just accepted her for who she was – and that meant everything to Alicia.
During the time they had known each other, he had been very sweet to her. He’d come to her aid on many occasions when she couldn’t lift or move something. The spinal injury from her accident had left her with partial paralysis on her right side. Whenever she needed any type of assistance he jumped at the chance to help her, but she could tell that he did it without feeling sorry for her. It seemed like, in his own unconventional way, he enjoyed being with her.
Although she couldn’t be sure about his feelings, she hoped that Patrick liked her in more than a neighborly way. However, with so many quirks, he was difficult to figure out. She had never met anyone like him, but to her way of thinking, that didn’t seem like a bad thing.
Alicia had waited patiently for months hoping Patrick would ask her out, but although she believed he wanted to, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. She had even dropped hints about her favorite movies, the kind of restaurants she liked and how it was much more fun to eat out with someone instead of alone, but anything that had to do with going out in public caused him to shut down. So finally, she decided to invite him across the hall for a quiet dinner. Just the two of them. No pressure.
Alicia loved to cook, and she was good at it. But other than the rare occasions when her family visited, there was no one to cook for.
However, when it came to Patrick, she actually considered it fortunate that she did not see her family that often. She knew that if they found out she was going to have a date with a Caucasian man they would consider it a scandal. She loved them, but they were completely closed-minded on the subject of interracial dating. That coupled with the fact that Patrick seemed different from other people made their rejection of him almost guaranteed. But for now, she forced all of that from her mind.
Tonight she just wanted to concentrate on having a nice time and getting to know this interesting man better.
Promptly at seven, Patrick knocked on Alicia’s door. His shaking hands provided visible evidence of the fact that he was scared to death. He could only hope his fear didn’t show.
After a few moments, he heard the sound of her cane and then the door opened. He was stunned by how beautiful she looked.
Alicia smiled and tried to pretend that the man in front of her did not look terrified. “Good evening, Patrick! Please come in.”
Patrick followed her and was impressed by how good the food smelled. It was nothing like the stuff he heated up in the microwave.
“I hope you like spaghetti. It will be ready in a few minutes.”
“Why don’t we sit down and talk a little bit.”
Patrick nodded again, and it made Alicia wonder if she was going to have to carry the burden of conversation for the entire evening. If so, she didn’t really mind. She was a gifted talker who was forced to spend too much time alone.
“I hope you’re hungry. I made a lot. Plus we have salad and bread…Oh, and dessert too.”
They sat in silence for a few moments and finally with a shaky voice Patrick said. “You look so pretty. I mean you’re always pretty, but tonight you look different somehow.”
Alicia was flattered. “Thank you! I just put on a little more makeup; it helps to hide my scars.” Instantly she regretted that her own nervousness had caused her to be so forthright without thinking.
Patrick brushed her response aside. “No, that’s not it.” He thought for a second and then suddenly realized what it was. “It’s your hair! It’s fixed differently.”
Alicia smiled. “That’s right. I didn’t think it was noticeable. Do you like it?”
Hoping to change the subject from her appearance, Alicia said, “I tried a new recipe on the dessert, its cheesecake but with a twist.”
Patrick slowly looked around the tastefully decorated room and then back at Alicia. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course.” Alicia took a deep breath. She had no idea what to expect.
With genuine wonder, Patrick softly asked, “Why are you being so nice to me? No one has ever done that before.”
His honesty was disarming – so she returned it. “I like you. I sense you are struggling with something, and there are things about you I don’t understand, but you still seem to care about me, and the fact that you accept me the way I am means a lot.”
“It’s easy to accept you. I think you’re perfect.”
Alicia was surprised that this man was being so direct. He had always seemed shy, but now he was speaking in a startling way. Perhaps this evening was not going to be what she expected.
Since the subject of his issues had been brought up, Patrick figured he might as well get everything out in the open. “You mentioned I’m struggling……do you know that I have a disorder……that I have OCD?”
Alicia gently said, “Yes. I hear you locking your door. You always lock it twelve times.”
Patrick felt a strong sense of relief. “I’m actually glad you know. I’ve been worried about how I could pretend all evening.”
“I don’t want you to feel like you have to pretend about anything. Just be yourself.”
Deciding to take the conversation in a lighter direction, Alicia said, “You have known for a long time that I work for an insurance agency, but after two years, I still don’t know what you do for a living.”
Patrick realized it was true. “Obviously, I work from home. For the last six years, I’ve been employed as a writer by a company back east. Typically, I do a lot of technical stuff and some text editing, but my specialty, if you want to call it that, is writing instructional information. I’m the person that people swear at when they try to comprehend the arcane manual that explains how to assemble their new outdoor grill that turns out to be in 1,000 pieces. It’s not particularly exciting work, but it pays the bills and I don’t have to put up with the looks and whispers from coworkers that I’m sure my behavior would cause.
“Besides, working in a crowded office filled with people coughing, sneezing, and God knows what else, is pretty much unthinkable. However, I admit that not going to work somewhere increases my isolation, but it’s a necessary trade-off.”
“Yes, I couldn’t help but notice that you rarely leave your apartment.”
“That’s true, but when I do go out, no matter what, I have to be back by 5:45 p.m. There can be no exceptions.”
Curious, Alicia asked, “How come?”
“I have to be there so I can hear you returning from work.”
“I need to know that you’ve made it home. So, each weekday I sit by my door and listen for the sound of your cane coming down the hallway at six.”
She could not hide her surprise. “You do?”
“Yes. I worry about you. When you stop off at the store or someplace else and you are late, it drives me crazy. I’m always afraid something has happened to you. I get really anxious, and I can’t relax until I hear you.”
Alicia smiled warmly at him. She had begun to believe that nobody in the world cared about her. It made her feel appreciated that someone actually worried.
Patrick surprised her again when he said, “I love the sound your cane makes when it strikes the floor.”
She looked at him quizzically. “No one has ever said that before. What’s so important about hearing my cane?”
Softly he said, “It’s the most beautiful sound in the world because it means your home safe.”
For just a moment his words took Alicia’s breath away. For months she had wondered if Patrick cared about her as much as she did him, and now that she realized it was true, it warmed her heart like nothing else ever had.
She looked at him intently for several seconds and then said, “You are not like anyone else I’ve ever met.”
Patrick couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s for sure.”
“No, I mean you don’t have any pretense. You are real. You have never tried to impress me the way I see guys trying to impress other girls.”
That made him smile again. “How could I ever hope to impress you? I’m not good looking. I don’t have an important job. I don’t make a lot of money. I don’t even have a good car.”
She agreed. “Yes, you are quite a catch.”
Patrick leaned back and laughed hard. It was a sound that Alicia had never heard before, and as she watched him she became even more convinced that if given the chance, she could help him be happier.
But first, there was dinner to take care of. She looked at her watch and said, “I think the food should be ready. Why don’t we eat?”
Over the next thirty minutes, they enjoyed a delicious meal and, in an unusual stumbling kind of way, engaged in a conversation that was both pleasant and meaningful. After deciding to eat the dessert later, they moved to the living room and Alicia sat down on the couch. She was disappointed but not surprised when Patrick sat as far away as possible at the other end.
The last hour had made Alicia more curious than ever about her dinner guest, and she couldn’t resist trying to find out more about him.
Suspecting she already knew the answer to her first question, Alicia asked, “Do you date often?”
“Never. That’s why it’s still hard to believe I’m really here.”
“I hope you don’t feel uncomfortable.”
“Well, I don’t feel like jumping up to check anything so that’s a good sign……but you did make sure your stove is off, right?”
Alicia smiled. “It’s off.” Then she said, “I know what you mean though. I don’t really go on dates either. Just because I have physical challenges, most men automatically think I have intellectual challenges too. They talk down to me or assume that I can’t understand something on their level. I went to college. I’m as smart as they are.”
Patrick disagreed. “Oh no. You are smarter than them. You see people for who they really are. That is so rare that it’s surprising – but it also makes me nervous because that means you can tell what I’m really like.”
“Only to a degree. I mean I’ve always heard about OCD, but I’ve never personally known anyone who lived with it……Do you ever talk about it?”
“No one has ever asked me to. People have always made jokes and ridiculed me, but they weren’t actually interested in it.”
Her abruptness caught him off guard. “Really? Why?”
“Because I care about you.”
His expression immediately changed and Alicia could see he felt self-conscious. She tried to make it easier for him. “Look, we’ve known each other for over two years. You know I have a spinal injury from a car wreck, and it’s obvious that you have OCD – but neither of us has been scared away.”
Patrick knew she was right. When he thought about Alicia, her disability didn’t even occur to him. He just considered her as a person, not as someone who dealt with weakness and used a cane. The fact she’d had plastic surgery on her face had no effect on the way he felt about her. But it was difficult to believe that she could see him as anything other than an unsettling series of compulsions that controlled his every waking moment.
Alicia decided to go for broke. “If you would like to talk about it, I’m willing to listen.”
He appreciated her thoughtfulness, but Patrick didn’t know what to tell her. Even though he believed she cared about him, he didn’t think she would ever be able to really understand what went on in his mind – or why it began in the first place. “I don’t know. It might change your opinion of me.”
“Of course, it’s up to you. But please don’t worry. It won’t affect how I feel about you.”
Patrick wasn’t sure if it was worth the risk. But then it dawned on him that he would probably never meet another person who was as compassionate and open-minded as Alicia. And he couldn’t help but wonder if he would feel better if he confided in someone.
“Okay. I’ll try.”
Alicia wanted to be reassuring. “How about if we start with a few questions. And if at any point you want to stop – we will.”
“To help me understand your life, why don’t you tell me what a typical day is like for you?”
Patrick’s shoulders slumped just a little, but he gamely tried to paint an accurate picture. “I get up every day at 5:00 a.m. I don’t usually want a big breakfast, just some toast or something. The most important thing is coffee. I’m hopelessly addicted to caffeine.”
“After checking twelve times that the toaster is unplugged and that the coffee maker is turned off, I take a steaming hot shower. As hot as I can stand it. The shower has to last twelve minutes. No more, no less. If the timing is off, I take the shower again……I know that seems crazy but it just has to be that way.”
Alicia looked at him without judgment. She knew he was attempting to explain something that was difficult to put into words.
With some obvious discomfort, Patrick continued to describe his day. “I start to work at six each morning and depending on how much I have to do, I write until three or four in the afternoon. Because I’m a lousy cook, I usually just heat up something in the microwave for dinner. Plus, it saves me from having to spend time repeatedly checking that the stove is turned off, that the refrigerator is closed and so on.” He wondered how strange this sounded to her – but so far her reaction had been accepting.
“My best days are when I don’t have to leave my apartment. But, of course, I have to go to the supermarket, medical and dental appointments and all the other things that people do. It’s just that when I leave home the stress ratchets up quickly. When I go out in public I no longer have control. Anything could happen.”
Alicia studied Patrick’s face. He was cute, but his anxiety was always visible in his demeanor and mannerisms. She decided to ask him a question she assumed he would have to think about. “What is the worst part of having OCD?”
Without hesitating, he said, “The loneliness.”
Patrick’s quick reply surprised her. “That’s not the answer I expected.”
“It’s true. I avoid people at all costs, and it creates a level of isolation that is crushing. It has been like this for twenty-two years, and in all that time I have not made one friend. If I died tonight, I don’t know six people who could be my pallbearers.”
“So you avoid people because of the compulsions?”
“No. The cause of the compulsions is why I avoid them.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“My compulsive behaviors are just the symptoms that are obvious to everyone. The reason why I have them is what dominates my life. It’s just something that is always there. And it’s a constant struggle to block it out.”
“Would you like to talk about the cause? Would it be helpful?”
“I not sure if I can. It’s really personal……If I tell you, I’ve got to know that you’ll never repeat a word I say. Can you make that promise?”
Firmly, Alicia said, “Absolutely. I will never tell anyone.”
Patrick debated in his mind whether he should really confide in someone he did not know all that well, but at that moment, something happened to him that had not occurred in more than two decades. He made the decision to trust someone. He looked at Alicia, and for the first time, he actually wanted to talk about the event that changed his life forever.
Patrick collected his thoughts and then surprised her. “If you don’t mind me asking, are you a Protestant?”
Alicia thought his question was unusual, but it was her idea to start down this road so she was happy to answer it. “Yes. Growing up I was a Baptist, but I haven’t been to church in years. After my accident all of the congregation kept praying for me to be healed, and, of course, when it didn’t happen, they just gave up on me and claimed it was God’s will that I was injured so badly – but I didn’t believe that for a second.”
Patrick thought it was a good sign that a lack of faith was something they had in common. But he’d only asked her about it because he was searching for the best way to tell his disturbing story. It had never occurred to him that he would ever share it with another person so he was not prepared.
After a few more moments of deliberation, he began to speak slowly and carefully. “I was raised in the Catholic church.”
Alicia’s heart sank in anticipation of what he was about to tell her.
Grimly he set the scene. “During the Christmas season in 1996, when I was nine years old, something very bad, something evil happened to me.”
Alicia watched closely as Patrick searched for the right words. “Our priest had always been very patient and helpful when I didn’t understand something so I didn’t think twice about asking him some questions about the Twelve Promises of the Sacred Heart that Jesus supposedly gave to St. Margaret Mary in a revelation.
“He invited me to his study in order to give me a complete explanation. I entered willingly, never dreaming that he had an ulterior motive. We sat down and one by one he slowly went over the Promises. Then when he was done, he calmly walked over to the door and locked it. Perhaps I was unusually naïve, but at that point, I still didn’t realize what was about to happen.”
He paused and then in an even tone, Patrick said, “The priest never said a word. He just grabbed me and the sexual abuse began.”
Alicia could scarcely believe what she was hearing, and it immediately made Patrick’s obsessive behavior understandable. She was deeply moved to think that he had endured a crime that she really couldn’t comprehend.
Patrick’s voice lowered to barely more than a whisper as he described the horror of a child being attacked by an adult. “When the priest first touched me, I was confused but mostly I was terrified. I didn’t understand what was going on so I didn’t move a muscle. I remember I was actually afraid to breathe. But then out of instinct, I guess, I began to try to fight him off – but, of course, he was much stronger than me. He hit me repeatedly and was able to pin my arms and cover my mouth with his hand. The abuse seemed to go on forever, and the effects have lasted all of my life. When he was finished, I grabbed my clothes and ran to a chair across the room. I remember I pulled my knees up, wrapped my arms around my legs and tried not to cry, but tears were already burning my eyes. I quickly fixed all of my clothes, and with his back to me, he did the same.
“When he was ready, the priest turned, stared at me for a few seconds and then held one finger to his lips to make sure I would be quiet. Without speaking, he calmly walked over and unlocked the door.
“I’ve often thought about how bizarre it was that he piously explained, in exacting detail, each of the Twelve Promises before he attacked me. What was the point of that? And if you really want to appreciate the absurdity, you have to consider the Tenth Promise in which Jesus states: I will give to priests the power to touch the most hardened hearts.”
With disgust creeping into his voice, Patrick said, “It clearly does not say that priests are given the power to touch innocent children.”
Alicia was shocked. “I don’t know what to say.”
Patrick looked at her with such vulnerability it was heartbreaking. “You are the only person I have ever told.”
“I can’t even imagine what you went through.”
“I don’t think anyone can appreciate it unless they’ve experienced it themselves.”
Patrick paused and looked away as he thought about the shame and humiliation he had felt. “It was several weeks before I saw the priest again, but when I did, he wouldn’t even look at me, and that’s when I realized he was just going to pretend like the abuse never happened. He didn’t have any guilt about it at all. But the worst part was that I finally understood that he’d never cared about me. I had trusted that man, just like any child trusts a person of authority, but that meant nothing to him. I was just someone he could use and discard without a thought.”
Patrick turned back to Alicia and was surprised to see tears streaking her face.
“The priest never spoke to me again, and, of course, I made sure that I was never alone with him.”
As he thought about the after-effects, he sighed wearily. “Almost immediately my life deteriorated into a debilitating set of obsessions. I guess it was just the way my mind reacted to the attack. Obviously, many of my compulsions involve the number twelve. You know about locking doors, but there’s actually a whole series of things I check and re-check twelve times each. It’s endless.
“But the thing that always haunted me was whether or not that man ever harmed anyone else. Of course, with all the news reports it’s a safe bet that I wasn’t his only victim. When I think about that, it makes me wish I had said something – but he was a man of God, and I was just a little boy. I believed he would convince everyone that I was lying. In those days it seemed futile to accuse someone of such a horrible act when everyone believed he had Jesus Christ on his side.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Either the priests don’t understand how much they are hurting the children or they just don’t care. But a few minutes of gratification for them leads to a lifetime of misery and heartache for their victims.”
Alicia said, “Do you think your parents would have believed you if they realized your OCD started just after that?”
“Unfortunately, my parents were deceased. I was raised by my maternal grandmother, and she was a devout Catholic who never would’ve believed a priest could harm a child. So I just forced that day out of my memory. I developed rituals that kept me from thinking about it, but then those behaviors began to take over my life. At first, it didn’t even occur to me that everything I was doing was based on a particular number, I was just constantly compelled in order to find some kind of relief.
“What is so tragic is that I trusted that man more than any other person on earth. More than any of my teachers or other relatives. I never for a minute thought he would hurt me. But I found out that no one can be trusted. I mean if a priest could do that to a child what are other people capable of? I knew I never wanted to find out so I decided to shut out the world so no one could ever take advantage of me again.”
Alicia appreciated the level of trust he was placing in her, and she wanted to know more about his story. “Is the priest still living?”
“No! He died several years ago……But I guess in a way he’ll never die because he still dominates my life, even after all this time.”
There was a short silence while Alicia processed everything she’d heard, then she asked, “Would you ever consider talking to a health professional?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You don’t believe it could help?”
“I’m not sure.”
Thankful that he had taken her into his confidence, she decided not to force the subject.
Although Alicia had listened carefully, Patrick still felt like he needed to try to explain further. “I know this must all seem strange to you, but the main issue for me is the fact that I need to be in control.” He wanted to make her understand, but he wasn’t sure he could. “The priest was in control, and I was vulnerable. I think that’s why I’m driven to try to control everything around me, and I resist situations where I know I can’t do that.”
“I think I understand……That means this evening was a risk for you. You stepped into a situation that was an unknown.”
“That’s true. But because of you, it was more than worth it. Please believe me when I tell you that tonight is something that I never thought would happen to me. I want you to know just how much I appreciate your invitation and the fact that you cooked a wonderful meal – but most of all, thank you for listening to me.”
“It is my pleasure……I just thought I should try to do this before December. I remember last year.”
“Unfortunately, Christmas is a bad time of year for me.”
“You know, my car accident happened on Easter weekend. What is it about us and religious holidays?”
Patrick shrugged. “I guess bad things can happen anytime.”
They sat quietly for a while and Patrick realized that the silence didn’t seem awkward. He actually felt comfortable just sitting with this person. But he also realized he’d done all the talking so far.
“Okay, I’ve told you all of my secrets, would it be all right if we talk about you now?”
Alicia made a face. “I suppose so.”
“You said your car accident happened on Easter weekend. What were the circumstances?”
One of the things that Alicia had always liked about Patrick was that he never asked her about her disability or how it occurred. He just accepted her without question. So now that he had been willing to talk about his painful past she knew it was her turn.
“It happened while I was at college. On the Saturday night before Easter, I was driving home to see my parents. At the time, my mom was struggling with a serious illness, so I tried to get back as often as I could. It’d been raining all day and the roads were slick.
“Although I was going the speed limit, it was too fast for the weather conditions. I hit some water and started to hydroplane. I remember I overcorrected and lost control. My vehicle slid off the road and rolled two times. I was unconscious when they cut me out of my car. The next day I woke up in the hospital and realized my life had changed forever. It took seven surgeries on my leg and back along with facial reconstruction to get me where I am today.”
“My God.” It was alarming to Patrick to realize how close she came to dying. “You’re lucky you even survived.”
“I’ve always been thankful that no one else was involved. I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I’d been responsible for hurting another person.”
Patrick was struck by the fact that even though her world had been altered in such a violent way, she still thought about others. He wanted to see if he could get her to focus on herself for just a few minutes. “So now let me ask you the same question you asked me. What is your life like? How difficult is it?”
Alicia always tried to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects of her situation, but she wanted to be truthful with Patrick. “I always thought the prejudice I experienced as a black woman would be the biggest challenge I would ever deal with – but I was wrong. People sometimes point and stare at me when they see me limping with my cane. Children are often afraid of me because of the scars on my face. So, in my case, having a disability has been an even bigger stumbling block in my life than my race.”
“Do you think being African American makes their reaction even worse?”
“I would like to say no because I want to believe that people are basically good, however, experiences like yours certainly makes me wonder if that is really true.”
“Yeah, when it comes to an opinion on the goodness of humanity, I’m the wrong person to ask.”
Although Alicia couldn’t be sure about other people, she was now convinced that Patrick was a good person. That made her feel more at ease about posing a delicate question. “You’ve been honest about everything else, so let me ask you something. When we first met, which had the most impact on you; the fact that I was black or that I had scars and used a cane?”
With complete innocence, he said, “Neither one. The only thing that made an impression on me was your smile. You are so beautiful when you smile. I didn’t care about anything else – and I still don’t.”
Alicia could feel the emotion building inside her, and it made her so happy that she had taken a chance and invited this man over for the evening. No longer trying to deny her feelings, she said, “Thank you for seeing who I really am.”
“I just hope you can do the same thing.”
Alicia broke into the smile that he loved. “That is not a problem at all!”
Patrick said, “I’ve never understood why people are so quick to judge someone who they just assume is different. That’s not right.”
Alicia agreed; however, she didn’t think it even applied to them. “In reality, we are not so different. Everyone has challenges they’re dealing with. Some are just more visible than others. But like anyone else, you and I have the right to be happy.”
“I know that’s true, but……”
“I guess it comes down to how we see ourselves. I remember one time in college I took a psychology test, and we had to describe our outlook on life in one word.”
“What was your word?”
“I chose hopeful……What word would you choose?”
Patrick thought for a second and said, “Cautious.”
“I suppose that’s fair.” Then she smiled again. “Maybe we could be cautiously hopeful together.”
Patrick nodded. “I’d like to try, but you don’t know what you’d be getting into. It would be easy for me. You are happy and optimistic. You look for the positive in everything. I think that’s what you’re trying to do with me. But it would be difficult for you. My life is ruled by things I have to do. And I do them no matter what. People just don’t understand that.”
But Alicia understood better than he realized. Carefully, she said, “My physical challenge is quite visible, which tends to elicit at least a certain amount of empathy and tolerance. Your challenge is mental and not as obvious. Therefore, I would imagine people are far more resistant to believing it’s an actual disability.”
“Yes! That’s a good way to put it. They don’t even try to grasp why I feel compelled to do certain things. They just jump to conclusions that make them think that I’m weird or strange. They decide almost immediately that they want nothing to do with me. There is no empathy – only judgment.”
“That must be so frustrating to not have anyone even give you a chance.”
“It is. That’s why it’s hard to understand why you are not like everyone else.”
“Well, I admit it has taken a while. We’ve been neighbors for two years, but during that time I’ve seen how considerate and thoughtful you can be.”
Patrick appreciated her kind words. However, it raised a question in his mind that he had always wondered about but thought he would never find the answer to. “Do you believe there is someone for everyone in the world?”
“Yes – but only if they make it happen. It’s not magical. You have to make the effort, put in the time and if they are patient, I think two people who are attracted to each other have a chance of becoming a couple. But too often they give up when things get difficult.”
“Do you really believe that’s true for everyone? What about someone like me who functions in a different way? Could I ever find someone who would want me?”
Alicia smiled. “You’ve already found someone. Out of all the men I know, you are the one I invited to dinner.”
Patrick sat perfectly still as her words washed over him. Just a couple of hours earlier he would’ve never thought that he could be this happy. Although all of his insecurities were still just below the surface, he was determined not to let them spoil the moment.
Alicia was also enjoying the evening. Patrick had let his guard down, and he had turned out to be the kind of person she would like to develop a relationship with.
She now felt more comfortable asking him personal questions so she tried another one. “Is there anything in life you would like to do but you’ve never tried because of your disorder?”
She waited, but he did not continue. “So…what is it?”
Slowly a look of embarrassment spread across his face. “Do you promise not to laugh if I tell you?”
Alicia frowned. “I Promise. I’m not going to laugh no matter what it is.”
“Well, you’re going to think this is ridiculous.” Patrick hated to even say it out loud. “I’m not very good with touching, but I would like to try slow dancing just once.”
Although she wanted to make his wish come true, her balance was so precarious it was all Alicia could do to walk. “Unfortunately, I don’t think I can help you with that.”
The disappointment in Patrick’s voice was evident. “You wouldn’t even consider it? Is it because of me?”
“No. No.” She pointed to her cane. “I haven’t danced since I was nineteen.”
“But slow dancing with your cane would not be much different than walking with it. And……I would try to hold you……I mean I would be holding you……Wouldn’t I……I mean if that’s okay?”
Alicia was nervous too, but the thought of being held by Patrick overcame her concern. “I guess we could help each other. Are you sure you wouldn’t mind putting your arm around me so I can keep my balance?”
Patrick’s answer was filled with astonishing tenderness. “I will trust you – if you will trust me.”
And that was the moment when he stole her heart.
The music was turned on, and ever so slowly they began to move together in what was possibly the most awkward, least graceful attempt at dancing in the history of romance. But because of their respective stories, what this couple was doing was elegantly beautiful. They were supporting each other in ways only they could understand.
Patrick and Alicia were finally able to enjoy the happiness they deserved. Gently swaying in each other’s arms, they defied a world that was eager to judge them based only on their disabilities and race.
But for this young couple, what others thought no longer mattered because, against all odds, they had found the courage to fall in love.