I try not to stare at Jeeva and his BSA on the railway tracks at Maki Station, as the two freefall over the gravel slope in front of our gate.
Jeeva has eyes in his feet, I know, but I cannot watch this. He grins in my direction, the last rays of another sun settle across his eye bones, and for a moment, there he is, a lighthouse, the light spilling off him.
‘B,’ his BSA bicycle, lounges against the white wall, glistening bright red. I helped him paint it six weeks ago. My friendly neighbor ‘lighthouse’ scans the wheels, spoke, and chain with two sets of rags: one that’s wet and another for dust. He knows I’m here; I can tell he’s self-conscious because his left jaw muscle moves nervously.
We met exactly a year ago when he moved in. What a noise that was, with six metal trunks labeled in Braille and not enough parking space for his ‘B!’ It took a while for us all to recognize that instead of a guide dog guide or a long cane, our new neighbor walked along with his blood-red-cautionary bicycle mate. Genius.
A few weeks ago, he touched my face. When a blind person feels your face, it isn’t necessarily a romantic gesture. They want to know how you smile, and whether they can trust you the same way they trust their B’s bell at traffic lights and crossings.
I took it personally. I’m mid-thirtyish, a graduate from India’s best arts college in Bangalore city. Jeeva is 40, maybe 45? I’m unsure. He’s of my Pa’s generation, though.
Speaking of which, Pa owned a three-speed Phillip’s gearbox fitted into a Raleigh, which he rode like a teenager at 70. “Keeps me young,” he said, that rush of the wind in his ears. He was a cross between a true-blooded South Indian and a male Mary Poppins.
Pa brought home kittens in that carrier basket, kicking live lobsters, and even a drake and ducklings that had lost their partner and mother in a storm. Once, we rode with Pa down Jasmine hill to the steep turn where we fell into sheep. Another time, we fell in horse dung, sliding us neatly past Mr. McFarlane’s villa, Pa’s Raleigh cycle following in tandem.
Ach! The look in McFarlane’s face as he watched over his wall, mouth hung in the despair of delight. That Christmas, they invited us over, and Mrs. M.’s eyes twinkled with contained secrets. It was their last month before they went back to Perth, and the last thing he said to us was, “Oi, you girls, and Dad do a neat spin now and then, don’t ya? What were you doin’ all four of you in the seat of your pants down Jasmine hill, eh?!”
Mai, my mother, pretended like she never heard a word.
“How’s it going?” Jeeva asked.
“How’s what going?” I didn’t know what to say. Would he know I have shoulder-length hair, my 5’ 4″ frame was curled like a cane divan? Or, that my prosthetics still hurt? That I’ve been in ‘lockdown’ 24 hours a day since a car accident took my feet, and my parents? That my sisters are a teacher and a doctor, and I’m an artist with oils? That last detail, he knows, since we are colleagues at APH.
The evening Pa taught me to ride, I thought he was holding onto the rear of my bicycle, but he’d let go as I rode along the trail running parallel to the sea. I took a steep curve back down. I thought he was yelling behind me, but his voice was carried along with the sea winds, and my heart went like horses. “Keep going, Ray,” he yelled. His voice returns now, and again when I forget, I cannot fly.
When Jeeva speaks, he has no accent; no rolling of R’s, flattening of the alphabet’s W. “We could be good together…”
“I don’t know that.”
“We do not know much. Y’know about everything? About an Earth spinning with zero support from any of us, just gravity, the same thing that holds us down too?”
“You must be pretty. I can tell by the way you are not easy to please.” He’s laughing. If you call a snub-nosed elf pretty, then yes.
Jeeva finds my cane stool and straddles it. “Do you not want to get out? We could do shorter trips first.”
It’s hard not to smile.
“We both need our groceries and vitamin D. Then, when we can, let’s work out. This is important.”
He’s good at balancing manners with caution. That, and maybe he just wants company.
“I’ll walk my bicycle. You could join us with your chair?”
He means my wheelchair.
What a great-looking couple, going to get our greens and potatoes.
“You just want company,” I said.
“Yes, but not just any.” His grin is relieved; it lightens the air.
I worked as an Art Teacher at the Association for the Physically Handicapped, which was only a minute away. Jeeva taught music, now entirely online. It must’ve been dizzyingly difficult, but he was good.
Me? I sweat the details. How did he live with those whacked irises, all chained to reality and hope, light and darkness?
Twilight steeped with the monsoon.
Jeeva stood up, looking taller than his 5’10-ish frame.
I wanted to say to him, “Maybe this isn’t all about groceries.” And, that I saw how light spilled off him like a lighthouse this evening.
The last time I was up in the lighthouse with Pa, the coastal arc simmered blue. A low, orange door opened onto the outer lip of the black and white-striped tower. Here, winds plucked at my ears, arms, and legs. I tasted salt as I held onto the railing; it was scary, dangerous, “a lesson life taught you,” Pa said. “You need to hold onto all you can. Never stop that, never.”
Jeeva stays a bit longer. He wants to talk.
“I was born blind,” he says. “I grew up in a home for homeless boys like me. They taught us to test winds, listen for the sounds of people breathing and smiling. The air has these signals in temperature, like emotions. Like a ground that dips, swells.”
“If you focus too much on what you cannot do, you will fall,” he continued. “It is the worst temptation to focus on how you can fall.”
He turns his face toward me for one long moment, like he can see. Then, he begins to leave, saying he’s tired and must wake up early. “Tomorrow, we are going to do this. One little stretch at a time. I will not take the Maki railway route. Instead, we will go down by the park,” he said.
I stalled. This wasn’t going to be easy.
“Hey, Hey! No negative spins, Ray. You take a break whenever. When—ever.”
Fine. That sounded fine. How my ‘feet’ would take it, I did not know, but I wanted this. It was also the first time he’d said my name.
I arrived back at my house, with its wide doors for a wheelchair, its shelves within arm’s reach. Safe, easy. There’s a rush in my ears, the noise of negation.
It will be nice with Jeeva. Maybe, one day we can take the kids from APH and go someplace, maybe a safe slope to start.
‘Keep going, Ray…’ a voice calls past the spin in my heart.