New Jersey Pizza
The day before I moved to New Jersey, I told my only friend that I was okay with never seeing him again. Friend is a pretty generous word to describe us, but I wanted to feel like I was leaving something behind.
I’d always had a knack for burning bridges. This, I believed, was a trait I inherited from my mom, who knows how to get on with life.
But lots of people come and go with little regard for the people they’re leaving. My nurses almost never look back. And I can’t let that bother me, because (a) most of them don’t think two thoughts about me in the first place and (b) I need to keep the revolving door turning to avoid a lapse in my care.That’s not to say my parents aren’t capable of taking care of me; I wouldn’t have been alive and starting my sophomore year of high school without them. But they can’t do it every second of every day, so we hire nurses who are reliable enough to attend school with me and make sure I don’t die on their watch.
On the first day in our new house, I sat watching a preseason football game with my brother, Ollie, who was wearing a sweatshirt from the University of Virginia—his future college and the lacrosse team he’d be playing for the following year. He was sitting next to a stack of boxes on the couch we’d dragged across the country.
Our parents walked in, each looking more exhausted than the other. Mom’s hands were placed firmly on her hips, which actually wasn’t a sign of her being mad. She was about to ask us a question or tell us to do something.
“We’re ordering pizza for dinner, okay?” she said. “I’m tired, and there’s nothing in the house to cook anyway.”
“I hate pizza,” I said. “It’s gross.”
“Too bad, Harris. I’m not running to the grocery store at ten o’clock just to buy you chicken nuggets. You can deal with pizza for one night.” She walked away, leaving no opportunity for a rebuttal. To argue with my mom, I had to be faster.
“Dude, we’re in New Jersey. Some of the best pizza in the country is right here,” Ollie told me.
I ignored him. Dad lingered behind. “Ollie, can you get up and help a little? Pick up those boxes and bring them into your room?”
“Why didn’t the movers unpack everything?”
“It doesn’t matter. I asked you to do something.”
Ollie dragged his body off the couch, picked up two boxes, and stomped down the hall toward our connecting bedrooms. Dad followed with the rest of the boxes.
I sat alone in an unfamiliar place.
Our house back in San Diego hadn’t been big enough for my family, the several nurses who are always coming and going—not to mention the four hundred pounds of metal strapped to my ass. Someone always seemed to be in the way. The new place seemed pretty good so far. Ollie and I had our own mini wing on the main level. Next to our bedrooms was a huge bathroom with a roll-in shower large enough for me to do donuts in with my wheelchair. Trust me, I’d tried.
You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is for real-estate agents to understand what wheelchair accessible means. My parents probably spent more time explaining that than driving cross-country. Like, no, the house can’t have stairs.
The kitchen filled up with the sounds of my parents arguing and ceramic plates clanking, until it was decided we’d use paper instead. Tensions between everyone were higher than usual. Turned out moving was pretty stressful. I pulled up to my end of the table, which we’d brought from back home. Thank God for something familiar. My mom picked up the slice of pizza in front of me and shoved it into my mouth. My disability makes it difficult for me to lift my arms and feed myself. Even small things like a piece of cereal or a plastic spoon pose a challenge. I used to have the muscles to eat independently, but over time I’ve lost them.
But to be honest, having someone feed you is pretty cool. Despite the occasional mess in my lap from people dropping food, I usually feel like a king being fed by servants. Except those servants are my parents, my brother, or a nurse.
“Are you excited to start at your new schools?” Mom asked. “We’re not five years old,” Ollie responded. “We’re in high school. No one’s excited.”
I swallowed my first bite of pizza. (I’m a very slow eater.) “I’m pretty excited. New people means no one knows me. I can reinvent myself. Maybe they won’t notice my wheelchair.”
“They’re strangers, not blind,” Ollie said.
“Either way, I’m glad we left California. I never want to think about that place again.”
“Hey, don’t be like that,” Dad said.
“Be like what?” I asked. “I was miserable there. I had no friends, it was always hot, and it’s not like I could go to the beach. Besides, I had at most three good nurses in the last fifteen years.”
“What about you, Ollie?” Mom asked, clearly giving up on me. “Your new lacrosse team is way better than the one in San Diego.”
“I don’t know. Coach introduced me to some of the guys on the team during my tour yesterday. They seemed like jerks.”
“Maybe they think you’re a jerk,” I added.
“Guys, stop,” our mom ordered. “What makes you think they’re jerks?”
Ollie shrugged. “None of them would talk to me.”
“Probably because they know I’m better than them. They’re pissed off I’m on the team.”
“Well, the season doesn’t start for a few months. You have time to make friends.”
“I don’t need to be friends with them. I’m not there to make friends. I’m there to win a championship and then leave for Virginia.”
While my brother vented about whether he needed friends to play a team sport, Mom pivoted back to me. “I got a call from the nursing agency here. They have a few people who are interested in going to school with you, Harris.” “Are they young?” I asked.
“I told them you prefer younger nurses. We’ll see.”
“I prefer young and beautiful, but I’ll settle for young.”
“You’ll settle for what they send,” my dad said.
“Yeah, why do they have to be young?” Ollie asked. “They’re there to take care of you. You don’t have to date them.”
Mom raised a cup of water to my mouth. I took a sip from the straw and then another bite of pizza.
“Harris needs a contemporary with him,” Mom said. “How would you feel if an old fuck followed you around school all day?” Ollie shrugged. “Honestly, I wouldn’t care.” Then he secretly flipped me the finger from across the table.
Our dad rejoined the conversation. “Clare, don’t let Harris be too picky. Otherwise you’ll end up at school with him every day.”
“I don’t mind. Harris and I have a great time together, and either way, I’m going with him for the first few days.”
The discussion ended with no counterarguments. Of course, it wasn’t ideal for my mom to be with me at school, but it wasn’t the worst. She was pretty cool for a mom, and not having to worry about a new person following me in a new school was comforting. After a few bites of New Jersey pizza, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. If that claim to fame was crap, what were the odds Jersey’s nurses would be any better?
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