Monday, September 19, 2016

Tipping Point

Mountain View, California, September 16, 2016

The man sat in his Air Hawk motorized wheelchair in the corner in the grand living room, which was a little more luxurious and ornate than what he was used to. He felt slightly thirsty, but left his glass of water sweating on the small side table against the wall beside him. He was instead watching the twenty-some other guests who gathered in small clusters around the room, engaged in lively conversation. It was the first party the man had attended since he had become confined to his chair, having lost most of the use of his left arm and leg a few months ago. And despite his weeks of practice with the Air Hawk, he was a bit apprehensive maneuvering the chair through the crowded room. So he was content with having his lovely wife fetch some hors d'oeuvres for him while he parked himself out of the way, and mulled over his own lively conversation from a few moments before in the host’s private den.

The party was held in the home of a mild acquaintance, the supervisor of one of the man’s business associates in the health care industry. The associate and the supervisor have been working with the man on a prospectus for a pilot study for a new experimental rehabilitative therapy developed in Japan — one that may actually assist in helping the man regain his lost mobility. The three of them have had a number of discussions on the matter over the last several weeks, mostly on how to persuade the Japanese developer to pilot with their medical firm. But this evening, the man and his wife were invited by the supervisor to his social-cum-business gathering at his impressive Mountain View home to talk about having the man qualify as a potential test subject when… if… the pilot is a go. The associate was still in the den with the supervisor as they had additional business to discuss, but he encouraged the man and his wife to stay and enjoy the party.

While the man was elated by the news, he still looked at the cool glass of water with mild disdain. He had spent most of his recent days in t-shirts and sweatpants, but he had to dress in a button shirt with slacks and a blazer for this occasion. He had learned on a recent business trip that this attire adds an additional layer of complexity when he had to use the facilities, so he was trying to minimize that need as much as possible.

It was then that the man noticed that all of the people in the room suddenly stopped talking. All except for one, who was talking quite loudly.

A rather large man who appeared to be a bit underdressed for this gathering was arguing with his sharply dressed female companion near the drink station. The man in the wheelchair did not really pay much attention to the actual words yelled as he did to the person’s tipsy demeanor. The woman made a dismissive wave to the inebriated man and turned to walk away, when the drunkard angrily seized the woman’s slender arm.

“You’re hurting me…” she groaned, trying to twist away, but she couldn’t break free.

The man’s eyes narrowed as he worked the controls of the Air Hawk to point the caster wheels directly at the couple. Aside from his wife, he hardly knew any of these people around him, but he still could not believe how they could just stand idly by while this was happening right before them. The man’s slender fingers pressed the joystick of his Air Hawk forward.

The man caught the look of his wife from across the room as he was guiding the chair towards the argument. With his only working hand on the controls, the man had to cock his head to one side repeatedly in order to gesture toward the woman in the drunkard’s grip. The man was pleased to see his wife received the message and was working her way toward the other side of the arguing couple.

The angry drunkard seemed oblivious to the whirring hum of the man’s wheelchair as he made his approach. The man considered using the chair’s electronic horn, but instead decided to keep the chair moving, extending his good right leg as high as possible so he could give the drunkard a sharp nudge in the posterior upon his arrival.

As the man hoped, his sudden “kick” made the drunkard let go of the woman and turn toward him -- just as his wife arrived from the other direction. The man lifted his chin imperiously toward the intoxicated brute. He just needed to hold the bully’s attention long enough for his wife to help lead the maltreated woman out of the room and into the kitchen. “That’s quite enough,” the man said sharply. “Perhaps you should step outside and cool off.”

The brute bristled. “This your party, Mr. Sulu?” he scoffed.

The man suppressed his mild surprise that the drunken taunt was focused on his ethnicity rather than his disability, and instead repeated himself in the precise manner he had used before. “Again, I suggest you step outside and…”

As the man spoke, the brute made a few slightly unsteady steps to the left side of the man’s wheelchair, placed the sole of his right workman’s boot against the frame crossbar below the chair’s seat saddle, and pushed. The man’s sentence was cut off by an undignified reflexive yelp as the wheelchair tipped over onto its side.

That action triggered a collective gasp from the onlookers in the room. As the man struggled to shift his half-motionless body from its sprawled position on the floor, he could not help but mentally repeat with acerbity the part of the Air Hawk sales pitch regarding how being the “lightest lightweight power wheelchair” offered “the greatest flexibility and range of motion”...

With a grunt of effort, the man managed to lay flat on his back, and could see the brute slowly lumbering away from him, looking around the room for his female companion. The man strained to lift his head so he could get a clearer view of the crowd, to no avail. All he could do was hope that the women had already made it to the kitchen so the maltreated woman would be hidden from view… and that his wife did not see what had just occurred.

One of the other male guests finally found his voice. “That does it. I’m calling the police.”

That sentence had finally convinced the intoxicated brute to head for the front door. In a few moments the partygoers would hear a distant screeching of tires and an obnoxious rev of a car engine as he made his departure.

In the meantime, the supervisor host and the associate had emerged from the den, no doubt alerted by the commotion. They immediately went to work righting the motorized wheelchair and helping the man back into it. Before the man could regain his dignity, he immediately received a very tight hug from his horrified wife, which he returned as best he could with his right arm.

The man and his wife were relieved to find out that the maltreated woman, who was a good friend of the host, had been in a relationship with the brute for only a brief time, and that this was the first and only sign of abuse that she had experienced. The host insisted that she stay the night in his home as a precaution, and the host’s wife would kindly provide whatever provisions she needed. The man was disappointed that no one actually called the police, but the woman did not want to press any charges. The man was also concerned that the brute was driving a car while intoxicated, but all he could do was hope that the brute would make it home without causing any harm to himself or others.

After a lengthy expression of thanks from the woman and repeated apologies from the host, the man and his wife had taken their leave.

The man slowly wheeled his chair down the walkway, following his shapely wife as they made their way toward their car parked along the street. Before they reached it, the wife suddenly turned and tossed her husband an austere look.

“Just what the hell do you think you were doing? Standing up to that—” The wife bit her lip at her choice of words, but after a pause she continued. “Did you think that the guy wasn’t gonna fight you just because you were in a wheelchair?”

“Well, I was hoping…” the man said with a little cheek. He flexed his right arm slightly… starting to feel signs that bruises were forming under his blazer and shirt sleeve.

“Don’t joke about this!” she snapped. Her voice sounded a little panicked, and the man was surprised to see that she was on the verge of tears. “When you had that… attack, and we had to call the ambulance, I was so scared. The kids were so scared. I don’t want us to go through that again, even if…”

The man tried to reassure her. “Namiko, I’m okay… really… I…”

“No, sometimes I think you’re not,” she countered. “It’s almost as if you have forgotten what happened to you. As if you can just do anything you used to…”

The man held up his right hand. “Believe me, I am aware… painfully aware… of my limitations,” he said earnestly. “But you know I cannot just sit there and let someone…”

“I know,” she sighed.  “I know you always have this urge to help people – even total strangers. It’s one of the things I love about you. But please... please… just promise me that you will give someone else a chance to jump in and help before you put yourself in harm’s way like that, okay?”

The man nodded. He felt that was what he had essentially done earlier that evening, but he knew what his wife truly meant. “Okay. I promise,” he said quietly, his tone dead serious.

“Okay,” the wife said, satisfied. All signs of worry evaporated from her face. She gently touched the man’s left cheek with her fingers, and then brought her mouth to meet his.

“Thank you for that,” the man said after their lips parted. “And for helping her out. I don’t regret doing what I did, seeing how much we helped that woman. But I also know what I did was pretty stupid, seeing how quickly he took me down…”

“Maybe so,“ the woman smirked, “but you literally kicked his ass.”

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