The path along Lake Michigan was where I pushed my wheelchair to the limit. The path spanned the Chicago waterfront from south to north, nearly 20 miles in all. Just before 33rd Street there was a hill where I would push as fast as I could until I felt a tingling in my scalp. I would need to be able to go all out, I thought. I would need the ability to push my arms this fast without stopping. I imagined being chased, or running for shelter somewhere far away. The scene was dim and vague, but I was sure there would be a time when my life would depend on being able to go that fast and far without stopping. When I felt the tingle in my scalp I knew I had made it.
Martha met me at the finish line of the Chicago Marathon in 1985, the day after our first date. I wasn’t expecting her to be there. She had invited me over to her house on the second floor of a north-side brownstone, where she’d cooked me a pasta dinner. “You’re supposed to have pasta for a marathon,” she said proudly. There, neatly folded on her kitchen counter, was the Chicago Tribune article on how to prepare for the big race. She had thought this evening through. It was very nice. I didn’t even care that I’d had to haul myself up a flight of steps to sit at her dinner table.
Martha had once picked me out of a crowd with her dark brown eyes. She liked the size of my arms. She said she liked to go camping. She said she knew how to fish and that she had never dated a man who could rig tackle more sophisticated than a marshmallow on a hook. I could tear down a bass rig and bait a hook with a live grasshopper in the time it took to turn a boat around. I had an old brown Mercedes coupe that could go 130 miles per hour without a shake. My tiny apartment had a view of Lake Michigan. Martha was interested in my view and my adventures.
She met me at the finish line with a blanket, a towel, a bottle of apple juice, and a thermos of hot tea. My time was 2:38:46. Good for a runner, bad for wheelchairs, but I was happy. “Did you get hungry during the race?” she asked. “I didn’t think about food once.” At that moment I was thinking about my sore wrists. “I didn’t think that you would after my dinner last night.”
This was my second marathon. The only thing worse than running a marathon once is running it twice. The second time you know exactly how painful it will be, and you know exactly how long it will take. The first time a marathon is a throw of the dice. The second time it is a slow walk through fire. The first time there was no one at the finish line to meet me, so it was good to see Martha’s face there on that cold, rainy November day, the steam from my body mixing with her breath and the gray mist blowing in from Lake Michigan.
From the beginning we seemed to have lots to talk about. We especially talked about how all of our relationships never worked out. It was my idea that Martha and I move in together. “We’ll get a big place,” I said. “I’m never home. You’ll have your own bedroom and bathroom. I can cook. And we can continue our discussions about how all of our relationships never work out.” We did.
Being with Martha taught me a couple of things back in 1986. Chief among them was this proposition: Though you might be willing to die trying, certain battles cannot be won, certain details cannot be overlooked. In the matters of the heart, wooden puppets named Pinocchio cannot, ever, become real boys. There was also the important corollary: Never, never keep the keys to an apartment you once lived in, especially if the woman you used to live with still resides there.
It wasn’t long after moving in together that Martha and I began having difficulties. The weekends would always begin happily and end sadly. The happiness itself would bring on her tears. We would go out and have a wonderful time, and in the middle of dinner, or after the movie, or at home cuddling on the couch she would get this faraway look in her eyes and the tears would begin to roll down her face. “What’s wrong?”
“We had such a wonderful time, John. It’s just the idea of being with you forever,” she would say through her tears.
“Don’t think about forever. How about being with me for another week?” I would say. “String enough weeks together and they make a lifetime.” Thinking back, it was hopeless, but it was just the kind of challenge that could keep someone like me interested: I felt like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It could work. We could be a part of history. They would make movies about us long after we were gone. Caesar and Cleopatra, Cyrano and Roxanne, John and Martha.
During the time Martha and I were together, NASA announced that it was taking applications for something it called the “journalist in space program.” There were, no doubt, plenty of people in Washington, D.C., during the Reagan 80s anxious to assign troublesome journalists to cover the asteroid belt, but this was not a secret Pentagon program for suspending freedom of the press. A journalist was to accompany astronauts on a space shuttle mission in the same way a teacher was to be the first civilian nonscientist to get a chance to reach near-earth orbit. The very first civilian candidate, teacher Christa McAuliffe, didn’t make it. She died along with the six other crew members on the ill-fated Challenger in January 1986.
In the shock of the Challenger disaster, the journalist in space program was not shelved right away. For a time NASA proceeded with the selection process. From a pool of about 3,000 applications they selected 100 candidates, and then 40 semifinalists.
I encouraged Martha to believe that our relationship might work out. She encouraged me to apply for the space program. She loved adventures. I loved Martha. The fact that she encouraged me to take a ride on a vehicle that had exploded over Florida a few months before perhaps should have tipped me off. Martha needed her space. The space program said it needed journalists. But did the space program need disabled journalists? On this Martha was clear. “Why not?” she would say. “It would be great.” I wanted to know why our relationship was looking more and more doubtful. “If we can put a man in a wheelchair into space,” I asked, “why can’t you and I stay together?” At least Martha was encouraging about the space program.
In the restaurants of Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the mid-70s a middle-aged woman, her paraplegic son, and the rest of her family could be seen ordering dinner. The middle-aged woman would always demand to see a menu written in braille. “What! You have no braille menu?” You could be sure to hear her loud voice. You would be sure to notice that there were no blind people in this group. When the demand was made for the braille menu, the people around the table could be seen slinking down in their seats, or holding their ordinary menus up before their faces.
In the town where I went to high school, I was mortified enough by the commotion created when I showed up at a restaurant in a wheelchair. I was grateful to be able to roll into any place and order dinner, but asking for a braille menu seemed to be pushing it. To my mother it was a cause celebre.
What I failed to immediately understand was that with a recently injured son my mother now considered herself a full-fledged member of the disability rights movement. If she wanted to be the braille menu enforcer, I thought that was fine. But why did I have to be present for these scenes? “It’s better when you’re here,” she said. “I can just see those managers squirming.”
During the time my mother was fighting for braille menus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, my parents lived in an inaccessible house. They still do. My brothers and sister all do as well. The one member of my family who lives in a place that is wheelchair accessible is the only other disabled member of our family.
I don’t hold this against my family, it is just that for me the political issue of wheelchair accessibility is quite distinct from the actual accessibility of a given structure. Regardless of the legislation and the number of demonstrators willing to surround the U.S. Capitol, I can only get into the building by myself if it has no steps. Period . . . the end. We have all spent much more time, myself included, thinking and talking about general issues of political change than making the changes themselves at home.
I was working in the National Public Radio newsroom when the announcement about the NASA journalist in space program first crossed the news wires. I had always wanted to be an astronaut. Long ago I had decided that I had missed the launchpad. But this program seemed like a second chance. I was a journalist. I wanted to go into space. I would apply. One of the editors suggested that only science reporters apply, and that I was not part of the science desk. I noted that there was no stipulation from NASA about science reporters. “Go ahead and apply,” she said. “We will decide who from NPR will go into space. Besides, John, I think we can agree that NASA will not be sending a paraplegic as the first journalist to go into space. Right?”
I did agree, at first. Then I began to think about the problem. Was it really such a lost cause to think that even as a paraplegic one might be able to train and compete for a slot on a space shuttle mission? There was no denying the sentiments in the voice of my editor. “I’m sure it would be a good experience for you to apply anyway,” she said with the conviction that we had not reached the point in human evolution when paraplegics would be sent into space.
Would the space program actually be crazy enough to send a crip into space? If NASA would not consider such a thing, then it was a lost cause, a waste of time. But this was not the real issue. The real issue was to look at the problem on its merits, independent of whether or not some institution would give me permission. What would a disabled person do on the shuttle? Was there any intrinsic value in sending paraplegics into space, separate from the number of parking spaces this would free up on earth?
As I began to think about the problem it became clear that if all I tried to show was that NASA had no reason not to send a paraplegic into space, I had no chance. Paraplegics in space? Maybe someday. Just as electing an African-American president of the United States was a lost cause as long as no one seriously believed it would ever happen. Black president? Maybe someday.
I, too, could believe it was ridiculous to suggest that a person in a wheelchair might travel into space. I, too, wondered if I was wasting the application. The tone of my editor seemed to suggest, don’t rock the boat, don’t attract attention. Today we’re doing journalists in space, John; maybe someday we’ll do disabled people in space. That could take a long time. For the last 230 years we’ve been doing the white guys in the White House program.
Maybe someday . . . But to address this issue of space travel on its merits I would have to completely reevaluate how I thought of myself. Paraplegic, Paralyzed, Disabled Guy, Wheelchair User: all of these categories became suspect. For instance, the word “paralysis.” I have always hated this word. It seems to suggest that a person cannot move at all, when actually even the most disabled person can move. It really depends on how you look at things. Compared to birds we have lost the use of our wings, and compared to fish we have lost the use of our gills. I’m sure that, to fish, humans all decked out in scuba gear look pretty much like marine animals from some particularly tragic special education class. To birds, humans flying by, peering out of the tiny windows of pressurized jetliners, must look as odd and tragic as a busload of people in iron lungs.
To deal with the tragedy of not being able to live underwater or in the air, humans invent a less humiliating way of thinking about it. It is not we who are flawed by not being able to survive in water or fly through the air. It is they who are underwater creatures, it is they who are winged–their physical assets redefined as rungs of evolution’s ladder. Fish below birds, all of them below humans. But when we are not slaughtering them with rifles, jet engines, and nets, birds and fish must view us as the slow group.
To address whether paraplegics should become part of the space program you had to confront the real problem with paralysis–the physics, not the sociology. Is it the wheelchair? Is it the curbs? Is it the stairs? It’s the gravity. Think about it. Paralyzed people live in an excess of gravity. So much gravity, in fact, that they often need to use wheelchairs or other gravity-assist devices. Far from being a problem, an environment where one could float around instead of walking would be just perfect. Lose the gravity . . . no need for wheelchairs. In outer space, with everyone floating around, it would be difficult to tell the paralyzed people from the nonparalyzed people.
So when I described the mission I would pursue if given the opportunity to travel into space, I emphasized these issues. It began to seem as though I had a distinct advantage over the rest of the pack. How better to demonstrate the features of a gravity-free environment than to see disabled and nondisabled people working in space together? “Besides,” I would tell the selection committee, “I have already experienced significant g forces hurtling through space in an out-of-control car.” That put me ahead of the other journalists. As for the astronauts, even they had physical difficulty with the awkward space suits they wore, which required them to be attached to various tubes and machines. “I am way ahead of NASA in the urinary catheter department,” I told the committee. “I could train the astronauts.”
There were other advantages. A journalist who was also a paraplegic would undoubtedly have something to say besides “gee whiz” when he looked out the window. A voyage into earth orbit would become a voyage from literal confinement to weightless freedom. There would be no better way to convey the reality of space travel than to have this be part of the story. The image of six abled-bodied astronauts working side by side with an orbiting crip would be a powerful by-product of the space program that until now has not given society at large much more than some Tang, Teflon, and a few really fabulous pictures. If the most profound image of the first space missions was the earth as a fragile teardrop in space, then the image of human adaptability conveyed through the experiences of astronauts and a crip who have all had to adapt to survive would extend that original lesson. If the fragile earth shows what can be lost by humanity if it is not careful, this new image would show what could be gained by putting a few preconceived notions aside.
The argument was persuasive enough for me to be selected as part of the pool of 100 semifinalists, along with Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Geraldo Rivera. Cronkite and I made it into the next round of 40. No one from NPR besides me made it past the application stage. Far from feeling that I had triumphed over my editor’s original skepticism, I felt guilty about using the chair to go to the front of the line. This feeling was only compounded when the AP wire ran a story with the headline “NASA PICKS PARAPLEGIC FOR JOURNALIST IN SPACE PROGRAM.” The story was picked up by CBS, which asked me to appear on the news the next morning from Chicago. I was told the interviewer would be Forrest Sawyer. The other guest would be Walter Cronkite. It was May 5, 1986.
A little more than a month earlier I had moved out of the apartment I shared with Martha. It simply became impossible to continue trying to make a household work with someone who was fully convinced it could never work. She had become very blunt about it. She regularly let me know that she wasn’t going to be able to live with someone like me. Martha was someone who could easily imagine me as an astronaut but not as her boyfriend. Being an astronaut was something I really had to think about to be convinced it would work. Compared to traveling into space, living together seemed easy. But living with me long-term was quite beyond Martha’s comprehension.
It was both difficult and obvious to conclude that Martha’s ambivalence had something to do with the wheelchair. Difficult because this was the ultimate spiral staircase, the cosmic unfixably broken elevator, the ultimate inaccessibility nightmare. The thought that there could be no possible ramp up into Martha’s life drove me into hysterics and made me want to move heaven and earth to build one. But it was also obvious. Who would want a crip as a boyfriend, let alone as a husband? The question was torture, but also comforting. If the wheelchair was the only thing Martha couldn’t deal with, then everything else about me must be perfect. I was just one teensy weensy detail away from winning her.
I still had the keys to our apartment. Martha and I were still friends. I was convinced that she would eventually come to her senses. However guilty I felt using the wheelchair to get in front of a line, I would not hesitate to use the wheelchair where Martha was concerned. Martha loved adventures and I had plenty of those. I was the only one Martha knew who had any chance of going on the space shuttle, and I was going to appear on television with Walter Cronkite. There was still something to work with here.
I had dinner with Martha the night before the appearance on CBS. Her dark, thick hair was blowing in the breeze. It was spring in Chicago. Time was passing. We were moving apart. If I were to convince Martha that we could be together it would have to be soon. “I miss your arms, you know,” she said as she placed her head on my shoulder.
Martha was a physical treasure. Her strong body was rounded like an Irish landscape and her eyes were its clear, dark nights. She was matron, devil, and angel in equal measure. She would sigh deeply as I took her in my strong arms. My powerful fingers would knead her ribs and shoulders. The strength of my hands and arms made her breathless. As she exhaled from my open palm on her breast, I believed I could shape her body inside and outside. In our love, what loss there was in my body could be reclaimed in celebrating hers.
Our greatest adventure was in this reinvention of intimacy. But in the end, it only made her long for the original. Martha wanted from my body the one simple act of sexual union it could not give.
Martha could not have been more excited about my selection by NASA. She had believed it was possible all along. I held her close. She said, “Part of me wishes that we still lived together.” Which was all that I needed to hear. “Maybe we still can,” I said. Looking back, this could only be translated roughly in my own heart as, “I’m desperate. Take me back. I’ll try to be better. I’ll get rid of the wheelchair, honey. If you want me to cover it up entirely with a burlap sack and some gaffer’s tape, I would be glad to.” This was the attraction–a truly lost cause. The ultimate long shot on life’s moronic racetrack. In my pocket I felt the keys to our old apartment still there.
After a long, thrilling kiss in the night breeze, I walked her home. We traded details. I had not been seeing anyone. There could be no one to compare with her, I said. She sighed and insisted that there was no one to compare with me. In passing she mentioned that there was this stage manager in town working an industrial show with her, and that she had been with him a couple of times. This could only have meant that he had been at the apartment one or more nights, and since the industrial show was still in town it was possible he was there at the moment I was walking Martha home. In my reverie I nodded and forgot this little detail. “Don’t forget to watch tomorrow,” I added. “I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. “You’ll be great.”
The call on the set at Channel Two was 5 AM. I was to be wired up in a small room and would participate in the interview by intercom. I would not be able to see Cronkite or Sawyer, though they would be able to see me in New York on their monitors. I wore a blue suit. This was to be my television audition, and I was going to try to make a good impression, in addition to holding my own on the inevitable questions.
This was my chance to convince people across America that it was not just some crazy idea for paraplegics to go into space. I wanted to come across as a journalist and not a wheelchair version of Susan B. Anthony. It was important not to make this an argument over discrimination. If discrimination became the issue, viewers would collectively yawn and say, “We get it. First, parking spaces. Now the wheelchairs have their own Malcolm X.” But if I could get people to see the advantages of wheelchairs in space, then surely they would pay attention.
The television crew was setting up the shot, and I could see in the monitor that they were composing what seemed to be a very tight head shot. I suggested that they widen it to include the chair. “You don’t want the wheelchair in the picture, do you?” asked the cameraman. I said that since this interview concerned the possibility that a paraplegic would be chosen to go on the space shuttle, they should indicate visually who was in the wheelchair.
“You’re sure you want the chair in the shot?” He was acting as though the wheelchair was something I had spilled on my tie that morning while eating breakfast. “Don’t you think it’s a part of the story to have the wheelchair in the picture?” Perhaps things were not going to go well here. The cameraman widened the shot as much as he could for the small room we were in. If it was this nerve-racking to simply talk about going into space, what would it be like to actually be waiting on the launchpad?
The first time I heard Forrest Sawyer’s voice was over a tinny earpiece. He spoke to me off the air during the commercial a few seconds before the interview segment was to begin. He mentioned how he had always wanted to be an astronaut, that he was going to talk to Cronkite first, then ask me some questions. There would be only a couple of minutes for the whole segment, he said.
Cronkite was introduced as “someone who wanted to be the first journalist to go into space,” while I was introduced as someone who wanted to be the “first paraplegic in space.” The camera was on me as Forrest made this introduction. I could feel that I visibly flinched. I sensed that this flinch was even sneerlike. I intended to set Forrest straight when he asked me a question, but for now I just tried to stay calm.
The first question was about whether Cronkite was afraid to go on the shuttle after the Challenger accident. He said that he was glad NASA was dealing with some of these problems now. When a journalist goes up, he said, things will be much better. Then Forrest came to me and asked me my thoughts about fear in the aftermath of the Challenger. I indicated that I, too, was not afraid but I also noted, “Forrest, I want to be the first journalist in space just like Walter Cronkite, not the first paraplegic in space.” I couldn’t tell how I looked, and I couldn’t see Forrest’s reaction to me. But as soon as I said it, the hairs on the back of my neck tingled a little. In my earpiece Forrest paused icily. “OK . . . yes . . . of course.” Here I wanted to talk reasonably to the American people, and already in my first sentence I was sounding like Charles Manson. Forrest turned back to Walter in New York. “So, Walter Cronkite, do you think your age will be a factor up there?”
This time it was Forrest’s turn to march across his own tongue. He could be forgiven for not realizing on the first go-round that I was sensitive to being called the first paraplegic in space. He was, after all, reading off a script handed to him by the morning TV writers. But asking Walter Cronkite to talk about his advancing age on the network where he had been replaced as anchorman a few years back was like asking Ted Kennedy if he had ever thought of naming one of his children Mary Jo.
I couldn’t see it, but on the set Cronkite looked away from Forrest and right at the monitor. He ignored the question. “I’m more interested in what John is doing. I think it’s fascinating.” I completely forgot anything I was going to say about the advantages of wheelchairs in space or about the empowerment of the disabled. I began to babble something about how proud and honored I was that Cronkite and I were part of this group of candidates, and that to be on the same planet, let alone TV program, with Cronkite was a peak moment in my life. I stopped myself before I went over the edge and began thanking him for ending the Vietnam war and urging him to run for president.
A minute into the segment America knows that I am not afraid of outer space, that I don’t like to be called a paraplegic, and that I apparently worship Walter Cronkite. It is not going so well for Forrest either. At this point the host of the CBS Morning News is watching his guests conduct their own interview. Back in Minnesota my mother has passed out because Cronkite called me by my first name. “He called him John. Oh, my god! Walter Cronkite and my son are on a first-name basis.” As if our whole family would now be spending our summers aboard Cronkite’s yacht.
Cronkite asks how I would handle being in space, and I reply that as long as NASA can get me into the vehicle, I can handle everything else. “I realize that there are no ramps up to the launchpad at Cape Canaveral. But then I don’t plan to take my wheelchair into space anyway. In a weightless environment, who needs legs?” The guys working the camera in Chicago like this point. They nod and give me a thumbs-up. The segment ends with Cronkite and me saying how important we think civilian space travel is, no matter what setbacks NASA has to deal with in the wake of the Challenger disaster. There are thank-yous all around, and the segment’s over. The soundman takes my earpiece and says, “That was great, what you said. You know, if you think about it, who needs to have legs in space?”
“I knew it would be great,” Martha said on the phone when I got home. She had called from her apartment and said that her family in Toledo had said they liked the suit and wondered how long I had known Walter Cronkite. “Tell them Walter and I are like this.” She said how much she had enjoyed seeing me the night before, and that she wanted to see me again. She did not say when. I wouldn’t have heard anyway. I was delirious.
The next call was from my parents. My father concluded that, based on that interview, I would probably be going on the shuttle before Walter Cronkite. My mother was worried about Forrest. “I thought you and Walter were kind of harsh to Forrest Sawyer. First you yelled at him about calling you a paraplegic, and I thought Walter was going to hit him when he brought up that age thing.”
“I didn’t yell at Forrest, I just had to correct him.”
My mother knew better, as always. “Honey, I think I can tell when you want to poke someone in the eye with a dinner fork. I’m sure the rest of America thought you were perfectly polite, but I know that nice Forrest Sawyer could tell.” She added, “And a mother can always tell. I think I’m going to send Forrest a thank-you card.”
The rest of the day went quickly. I received a number of enthusiastic calls from around the country. There were friends, a few I hadn’t spoken to in years, and a Hollywood television producer asking about rights to my story if I went on an actual mission. “I’m going up there to be a journalist. My job is writing stories, not selling them.” I received no calls that day from the NPR science desk.
I wanted to spend the day with Martha. She had been so encouraging about wheelchairs in space. It was as much her argument winning the day as mine. I decided to drop by the old apartment and surprise her. I rolled uptown after work as the night was falling. It was warm enough to roll without a jacket, and soon the heat inside my shirt made it seem almost like a summer night.
My arms propelled the chair in a good rhythm. It felt like flying, there along the lakeshore. I looked at the lights along the water and wondered if it would ever really be possible for me to ride into space. Everything was so abstract. Truth would be measured in actions alone. There was always such a temptation in America to redeem all of the good feelings before anything really changed. The hard part would be to actually make it into space.
I rolled up to the building where I had lived with Martha and down into the parking garage entrance, which had no stairs. The buzzer for the apartment was down the stairs, inside the main entrance, so there was no way for me to announce my arrival. I got into the elevator and went up to the 20th floor. My heart was pounding. I knocked on the door. It seemed for the first time in a long while as though everything was going to be all right. This was where I belonged. Martha had seemed sad the night before. She needs me to hold her, I thought.
I knocked again. There was no answer. She wasn’t home yet. I had my keys in my hand from opening the outer door to the building. I put the key in the lock and rolled into the apartment where I had lived just a few weeks before. The place was dark and about the same as I remembered it. I rolled into our old bedroom. Her bed was in there now. The view out the window was spectacular. I sat on the bed and put my head back. It had been a very long day. Feeling as though all was right with the world, I pushed my head deeply into one of the pillows Martha and I had lain on together so many times. I smelled a familiar sweetness, closed my eyes, and fell asleep on Martha’s bed.
I awoke to the sound of voices down the hall. I immediately understood what a terrible mistake I had made. I recalled that Martha had told me the night before about the stage manager she had been seeing. There was a male voice in the other room. It was talking about some of the characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “I once had a cat that I named Bilbo,” he was saying. “Bilbo is symbolic, you know–he’s not just a fat guy with a pipe.” I could hear Martha making conversation, saying,”Now Bilbo is one of those little guys, the Hobblettes.”
“Hobbits,” he corrected her. “And Bilbo is symbolic, you know.” Martha did not answer. I imagined that she was nodding her head, trying to look interested. “Bilbo represents all of the conscious beings at our level in the universe. He is the questioner. You know, like in Dungeons & Dragons.”
Who was this guy? There was no time to eavesdrop. I had to get out of there. I had a few options. I could stay where I was and pretend that I was asleep. I could emerge from the bedroom and say “Hi, everyone. Don’t mind me” on my way out. I could try to make it into the other bedroom and leave after they’d gone to bed. Since it was warm out, I had worn no jacket. If I had even tossed a sweater onto the couch or something, Martha would have been tipped off and some scenario for me leaving would have presented itself by now. They clearly had no idea that I was there in the apartment.
I was getting a bit frantic. What had seemed like such a heartwarmingly great idea an hour before had become a nightmare. More than anything else, I was embarrassed. My main thought was to protect Martha. I didn’t know who this guy was, but I couldn’t allow my presence to ruin her evening. I decided I could not just pretend to be asleep and be discovered. I also could not roll out into the living room and chat my way out the door. The awkward pallor that a man in a wheelchair coming out of a woman’s bedroom would cast on everyone else was unacceptable, I thought. The polite thing would be to hide.
I could see a light snap off down the hall. “I’ll turn off the stereo,” someone said. There was no time for any more planning. They were coming to bed. I was in the bedroom. It would be impossible to get into the other bedroom down the hall without them seeing me. I was sunk. But instead of just being discovered, sheepishly apologizing, and leaving the apartment, I made a shocking, and what to this day seems like a completely insane decision. I scanned the room frantically. The closet? The window? I looked at the space under the bed and made a quick visual calculation. Yes, it could be done.
Out in the apartment, things were really moving. “I’m going to brush my teeth. Go ahead and get us a glass of water,” Martha called out to this little troll she had brought home. I had just a few seconds to think of something to do, and some bathroom and kitchen faucet noise to cover me doing it. I grabbed my wheelchair next to the bed and popped off the quick-release wheels. With a practiced motion I had performed thousands of times I folded the frame of the chair. Noiselessly, I climbed down onto the floor and slid under the bed frame. I stacked the wheelchair frame and wheels into a compact little pile and pulled them under with me. I made sure that my feet weren’t sticking out. I had one more instant to make sure this was a position I could hold. The footsteps were coming down the hall. If Martha didn’t notice the slight rumple of the bedspread where I had been lying down, I would be safe.
I saw two sets of ankles enter the room. Would Martha notice the bedspread? “Let’s get on the bed,” the guy said. Martha said, “Wait.” She sensed something was out of sorts somewhere. “What’s wrong, baby?” I gritted my teeth to stay motionless. But this guy was persuasive, and Martha was willing. I could hear him pull back the covers. There was no longer any visible evidence of my presence in that room. Martha cooed, “Oh, nothing,” and they both got into the bed. Their weight pushed the mattress down close to my face. Around me pants and shoes, socks and underwear began falling like the debris from a midair collision. My situation was beginning to dawn on me. It was 11 PM. Morning was about eight hours away.
I had spent the morning talking on national television with Walter Cronkite and Forrest Sawyer about whether Cronkite or I would be the first American journalist to travel into the vast empty frontier of outer space. Now, with my wheelchair under Martha’s double bed and the mattress inches from my nose, I was about to listen to the woman I loved being bonked by a skinny-ankled Lord of the Rings fanatic. The bed began to move above my face. I wasn’t going anywhere. If the bed slats holding the box springs held, I might not be crushed to death by morning. I hoped Martha and the Hobbit stage manager weren’t planning on sleeping in.
As the activity above me continued on a steep crescendo, I had a few things of my own to do to prevent discovery. If having a man in a wheelchair roll out of a girl’s bedroom could put the brakes on an evening of love, discovering an old boyfriend and his folded wheelchair under her bed was more like a bucket of ice water. This went beyond finding the vibrator or the trashy novel. Martha might just overload, claim she had never seen me before, and shoot me as an intruder. I quietly pulled my body into the smallest shape possible. I made sure that the chair’s metal was not going to click up against the bedsprings.
I could not tell what exactly they were doing up there. I could hear Martha’s rhythmic moaning. It sounded sincere. For a moment I felt a wave of jealousy and anger, but as I looked at my predicament I could hardly blame Martha. Mostly I had to laugh. It wasn’t as though I had found Martha and this guy at home on my couch, or making out at the next table in a restaurant. They were being discreet. I just happened to be six inches away.
I didn’t like this guy much, but as time went on I found myself rooting for Martha as I lay under the bed. I was the coach and she was the home team. I was urging her body on as if, like old times, I was up on the bed with her. I knew her body pretty well. I also knew how to decode the little noises she made. When Martha was on, her little moans were like individual words, each with its own note, length, and cute little rattle. When she was feeling it, each cry would end with a slow fade before she would take a breath and begin the next sound. When things weren’t working quite right, the cries would lose their commitment and begin to sound the same. She started out committed, but after a few minutes I could feel her drift. I could hear her say, “Down a little.” He would respond, “Right here?” “Over more.” “How’s that?” “Just go up . . . up.” “Here . . . here?” “Yes, there. Stay right there.”
There was a pause as the Lord of the Rings attacked the target. “There?” This guy was not exactly a heat-seeking missile. “No, over more.” It was as if the two of them were repairing something under the street and Martha was shouting to some guy down a manhole who was wearing a hard hat. The bed began to really move above my nose now. He increased his speed and enthusiasm by making noises of his own. Grunts and Yeah, babys and a lot of Oh, yeses. I wanted to tell him to shut up so I could hear how Martha was doing. Her voice was beginning to sound like a child being driven across railroad tracks at 70 miles an hour in a jeep.
I could hear that the moment had passed. She was flapping in the wind through another wasted window of opportunity. Finally she said, “Why don’t you just go in me?” He stopped and I could hear him fumbling for something. “There it is,” someone said as a foil wrapper fell to the floor near my head. “Is it on?” Martha said definitely. I chuckled to myself that this was something I did not have to bother with. Then I heard a sound come out of Martha that I had never heard before. It was high-pitched at first, then ended up in a gravelly bass gasp of pleasure.
I guess I know what that is, I thought. The big lotto jackpot, the real McCoy, the Amtrak Sunset Unlimited. I was a little scared of the shaking oak beams all around me. There was a twinge of sadness in my stomach as I listened to them howling together. This is the reason I’m under the bed and he’s on top of it. Maybe this is why I wanted to go on the space shuttle. Maybe the absence of this experience is the explanation for every crazy dare I’ve ever taken. Just one lousy little detail, Martha, and you will dump me for a guy with a tractor mechanic’s fingers and a grazing yak’s tongue.
The yak began to shout, “I think I’m going to . . . ” “Go!” she said. It was over in a moment. He screamed, the bed slowed down, and they stopped bouncing above my face. Martha made a loud, happy, triumphant sound, a sound I knew coming from me, not her. She had faked an orgasm; he had gone over the top. They had both gotten something out of the deal. I understood. She was happy for him. Feeling him go to pieces gave her the same pleasure I would feel for her when we were together.
Spent Adonis still had a couplet to rhyme here. “That was more fun than a barrel of monkeys.” After he’s just finished making love to the woman of my dreams, he says more fun than a barrel of monkeys? Even Martha sounded puzzled. In her laughter I could almost hear her wondering if there was anything good on TV. “Did you come?” he asked. Martha paused. “Yeah, couldn’t you tell?” No way, I thought. That much I knew. Martha wasn’t going to marry this guy either.
They made a couple more passes, which turned out about the same. When the mattress finally stopped shaking and they fell asleep I was alone there under the bed in the dark listening to them breathe, and was in terror that I would fall asleep and snore, or that one of my legs would have a spasm and make a loud noise.
It was my warped mind that had been responsible for selecting this hiding place under her bed, and now my paralyzed body was going to betray me. It was the perfect training for the isolation and disorientation of extended space voyages. I lay there tense and completely still for about eight hours. There wasn’t much to do to pass the time. I found a ballpoint pen next to some lint, and on one of Martha’s bed slats I scratched out a message: “5/6/86 I was here,” and then as an afterthought, “You never came.”
If I had been standing on the moon I could not have been farther removed from what passes for normal life in America. The day connected in a delirious, sleep-deprived theme. From hanging out with Cronkite to traveling into space to staring up at Martha’s bouncing bed slats–unthinkable things were possible. Lost causes could be found. They were right there under the bed.
Morning made everything on the floor visible. Shoes, socks, underwear, and condom wrappers had all dropped very close to the bed. It took considerable time and care, but I managed to toss each trifle a few inches or feet out from the bed, so when Martha and what’s-his-name reached down to get dressed they wouldn’t see me. The one item I could not reach was Martha’s bra.
At about 9:30 they stirred, made one more halfhearted attempt at copulation, and got up. Ankles moved around the bed. Hands were picking things up. It seemed as if I was going to make it. In a few minutes I would have spent an entire night, undetected, under the bed of two lovers. In the real world, surely fewer people could say this than could say they had climbed Mount Everest, or orbited the earth.
The last thing Martha reached for was her bra. Her hand came down, then her hair. I could see her head. Could she see me? I held myself utterly still, without breathing. She picked up the bra and for an instant I was relieved. Then, very slowly, her head came back down. She had put on her glasses and was staring me straight in the eyes while slowly shaking her head. I would have said something like “I really love what you’ve done with the place,” but her companion, whose name I never learned, was standing on the other side of the bed talking on about some concert he had gone to in high school.
Without a word, or even a flinch, Martha stood up and suggested that they both go out to the kitchen and have some coffee. The first thing she did after discovering me was to brush her teeth. It was a completely Martha thing to do. “Don’t you have to get down to the auditorium before 11?” she called from the bathroom. She seemed to be getting rid of him. But there was also the possibility that she didn’t want him around while she mauled me with a boat hook and packed my body parts away in the freezer.
In about 15 minutes the front door closed and he was gone. Martha waited about 30 seconds for him to get into the elevator and then she yelled from the kitchen while she rummaged in a cupboard. “One minute you’re on TV, the next minute you are under my bed. What the fuck are you doing under there?” I pulled myself and the wheelchair out as Martha stomped into the room. Instead of a knife for carving me up, she had brought a large jar from the kitchen. “I imagine you’ll need this right about now.” I was deeply touched. My bladder was about to explode. I filled the jar and then some.
She sat on the bed and just shook her head as I tried to explain. “I came over to surprise you and came in here and fell asleep, and when I woke up you were both out in the living room.”
“Why didn’t you just come out?”
“I didn’t want to ruin your date. Who is that jerk, anyway? “More fun than a barrel of monkeys’? Where did he learn that line, at Toys ‘R’ Us?” We laughed. For both of us, this was an epiphany.
“Now do you understand why I can’t be with you? You’re insane. But I still love you.” As she hugged me, I felt the apartment keys in my pocket.
“Here, please take these. It’s far too dangerous for me to have them.”
As I handed back the keys, I knew it was over with Martha. A few months later, following an investigation into the Challenger accident, NASA concluded that there were many more things to fix at the space agency than frozen O-ring seals on booster rockets. There would be no journalists in space, with wheelchairs or without. But in the summer of 1986 I learned that it was possible to fold a wheelchair and hop under a bed noiselessly in an occupied apartment in less than ten seconds. I also learned to believe that it was, in theory, feasible for paraplegics to travel into space.
Today Walter Cronkite is still the famous, avuncular, semiretired newsman/megastar he was back then. Forrest Sawyer has given up CBS and is a star anchorman at ABC News. Martha is married and living happily in Chicago. Today, I am about the same, scarred for life from the experience of spending the night under her bed. I no longer work for National Public Radio. I work on TV with Forrest Sawyer.
John Hockenberry, now a correspondent for ABC News’s Day One, was made a paraplegic in a 1976 auto accident. In the mid-80s he lived in Chicago as a reporter for National Public Radio. This article is excerpted from his new memoir Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence. Copyright 1995 by John Hockenberry. Published by Hyperion.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Kurt Mitchell.