Love All The Way
Iconic movies, iconic romance, my iconic wheelchair, and a dash of erotica.
“I feel like I can’t let myself love all the way,” Mau says casually over breakfast.
It’s the morning of my last day in Bogotá, where Mau lives. I am visiting him from Spain, where I live. Neither of us resides in the countries we are from. I am Canadian and he is from Costa Rica.
“I like the love stories where they don’t end up together, like Casablanca. Where they love each other, but they can’t be together,” he says.
“I feel pretty cynical about love, actually,” he continues. “I can’t relax and let relationships happen naturally — I have these heavy bombshells I know I have to drop at some point. I’m always thinking, when will I mention I’m bisexual, when will I tell them I have HIV? How will I bring it up and how will they take it?” he says, while I eat scrambled eggs and ham off his plate.
“It’s weird to me that you feel cynical about falling in love,” I say. “Because I’d swear that we are.”
Our first conversation was in a gas-leaking, dust-encrusted, over-sized van filled with paragliding students and our instructors as it bounced up the side of a mountain. It was the year before we were having breakfast in Bogotá. We were on a week-long paragliding course with Zero Gravity Paragliding school in Andalucía in November of 2016.
I was wearing huge, dark sunglasses. I wore them whenever I wanted to feel protected in a crowd, as a woman, in a wheelchair. Sunglasses couldn’t cover the conspicuous vulnerability of a wheelchair, but they did give me an unapproachable quality, and that bought me time to observe the men who would be in my company for the next week.
I was a brand new student. Mau had three previous weeks of paragliding instruction from Jose. Mau and Jose were sitting behind me falling into a familiar rapport that relied heavily on jokes about camels. I was learning Spanish and liked practicing, so I leaned over the back of my seat and listened in, translating to myself.
A soldier new to a base in the desert asks what the guys do when they want to have sex.
“Oh we just ‘take’ a camel.” His commanding officer tells him.
After much resisting, the soldier eventually and very desperately gives in and tries to have sex with one of the camels. He gets pretty beat up by camel hooves in the process.
He drags his battered body back to base, his face bruised and bloodied.
“Oh my god! What happened?” His commanding officer asks.
“I tried to fuck one of the camels!”
“You said that’s what you do for sex around here.”
“No, I said we take the camels… into town… where the brothel is!”
The joke is how I learned that coger — “to take” — has entirely different connotations in Latin America than it does in Spain. The dirty joke made me laugh.
“Every time they ask me to ‘take’ my glider or yell for someone to ‘take’ the van, it cracks me up.” Mau said laughing.
I laughed. I took off my huge, dark sunglasses.
Now we had a dirty in-joke we could use when the flirting got too intense and one of us needed to feign nonchalance.
On the first day of the course, while Mau carried me out of a roughly ploughed sunflower field, he said:
“When I get married and carry my future husband or wife over the threshold, I’ll be thinking of you.”
Then you better be future marrying me, I thought before I could stop myself. I didn’t say anything for a beat while I tried to figure out if we were thinking about marriage because it’s one of the few times a grown man carries a grown woman, or if there was something else to it.
“When I have a crush on a girl, it’s different than when I have a crush on a guy. I’m never sure if I want to be her or do her.” I said, as he settled me into the van.
A flirtatious tension pulsed between us. Not a hard tension. Or brittle, either. It felt like we were taffy in a taffy pull. How it comes together and pulls apart. It pulls and pulls, until it is aerated and soft. It stretches and becomes itself.
Later that night, the van full of pilots pulled up to a restaurant out of town. Mau lifted me out of the van and into my wheelchair, a move I could have easily done on my own. The smell of his cologne made my skin tingle and I pressed my nose into his neck and inhaled.
“You smell so good.” I sighed.
“I wore it for you.” He teased me and pressed me closer.
Another day, sitting in the square of a small mountain town and out of the blue, he said, “I like to play the ‘who would I bang’ game’” and started pointing out all the people he would bang as they passed.
“I never want to bang anybody.” I said, not wanting to play the game but looking at everyone he pointed out for himself.
I am aroused all the time, frequently by the weather. A breeze on the just-right part of my neck, the slow creep of sun up my thigh as it rises through my bedroom window in the morning. Music, as physical as touch, gives me goosebumps and leaves me limp. I’ll suck my lip into my mouth to taste a piece of prose. The swoop and press of g-force generated by a spiral dive in a paraglider makes my heart as dizzy as a lover might, if a lover could.
I rarely flush erotically over people the way I do over nature. When I do, it is never just for looking a certain way, never someone random just walking by. My most satisfying intimacies with humans are usually creative collaborations. Not sexual ones.
So, who would I “bang”?
There was Mau — it was clear that I was into him — I liked smelling his cologne, and being in his arms, and making him laugh. I liked the little bounce in his knees when he walked and the precise, crisp tick of his tongue when he pronounced the letter ‘T.’ But I was relieved when he’d talk about sex he had with other people. It took the pressure off me. I didn’t want to “bang” him, I wanted to simmer. I wanted to see what would happen over time.
And we only had a week.
A couple days into the course, while I sat in the shade of the van waiting to fly, Mau bounced up to me and said, “Erin! Let’s make a paragliding movie!”
“An action film!” I said, and grinned.
“Exactly!” he said, and tucked into the van beside me.
There’s a lot of waiting in paragliding — for example, for wind and weather to be on your side. Mau and I spent it rousing the rest of our pack with our enthusiasm to star in our mini action film. We shot footage of each pilot handling gear and being cool for a series of freeze-frame introductions with their name and the country they came from written in the frame in a rugged font. Every single person was from a different country and Mau loved that, so we featured it. Then we talked everyone into wearing the same t-shirt and walking dramatically toward the camera as a group so we could edit it in slow motion for our opening sequence.
“I have an idea for my clip. I’m going to pee in the trees and you should film it,” Mau said to me about the fifth day in. So I did, holding my iPhone so I could see the arc of his urine, keeping the view of his penis blocked by his back and giggling, my own bladder growing distressingly tight.
I was at the top of a mountain, the only woman — a small beast in the midst of a crowd of towering men — and I had to pee. The scraggly bramble near the parked vans, a couple steps away from the group where Mau was peeing, offered me zero privacy. Especially when me peeing could accurately be described as “a scene.”
I can’t stand. Which also means I can’t squat. I can perch, if there is any kind of ledge at all. But then I would still need something to lean against so that both of my hands would be free, because I have to perform what is, technically, a sterile medical procedure to coax my bladder to release the stream.
The first time Mau carried me from where I landed to some shade, I liked it. He breathed evenly, carrying me without strain, the entire 30 or more metres. After, I risked the innate power imbalance and let him carry me around several times a day for the rest of the week. Often when it wasn’t necessary. This put him repeatedly in control of my safety, bodily autonomy, comfort. No matter how flirtatious and playful we made it, the reality was I couldn’t just get down and walk off if I wanted to — a frustrating, confusing, one-sided intimacy I would normally avoid. I preferred to crawl through the dirt than have anyone carry me.
But I let Mau.
“Mau, when you’re done peeing, will you help me pee?” I asked.
I found a rock to perch on and told him to stand on the rock behind me, close enough that I could lean against his shins, while I worked out the logistics of an in-field catheterization. He was standing over me, providing him an unfettered view of me inserting a plastic tube into myself.
I finished peeing, wrapped the used catheter in the used antiseptic wipe, forced it into the packet the wipe came in, and tucked the whole thing inside my toiletry kit. Success! But while my bladder was relieved, I was not. This was not how I had been imagining my underwear coming off in his presence. I also hadn’t factored in the part where I would have to pull my underwear back up. How on earth would I do that without totally exposing myself? Normally, I grab the frame of my wheelchair and lean on it to stand, tugging one side of my underwear and then the other, until they are up over my hips and I can sit down to smooth them out. I would be exposed, front and back, for the entire time it takes to pull up my underwear an inch at a time.
In all the seduction advice I spent my teenage years reading, there were no Cosmo articles for this situation. How to keep it sexy when he’s helping you pee! I imagined the advice I’d give while I wracked my brain for the next step. “Try not to fully expose yourself when pulling up your underwear. If it’s too late for that, be coy about it.” Or: “Lean seductively against your wheelchair and invite him to pull your underwear up for you. Be sure to maintain eye contact.” It was too late for any of that. I probably should have fucked him first and then asked him to help me pee.
I sat on the rock, pants around my knees, leaning against Mau’s shins, and tried to think of any other way than the only one I could think of to get my pants back up.
“Just tell me what I can do or not do to help,” Mau said. And waited.
I learned from a childhood full of invasive medical procedures how to go away from myself. How to pretend to be chill, laughing and joking with the strangers inserting things I didn’t want inserted into me, their clinical hands prodding my genitals. I didn’t begin to unlearn it until I was in my thirties and the things strangers were inserting in me were their penises and, even though I was asking for it, I was still going away from myself. The best part of a hookup was leaving someone’s apartment, on the sidewalk at dawn, freshly returned to myself. Just like the first moment after a clinical procedure when I would be left to handle my body in my own way again. I wasn’t chasing intimacy, I was chasing autonomy. I believed then that I had to choose.
On the mountain, I took a breath. I called up the image of Mau peeing in the bush a handful of minutes before. The memory — the crassness of it — put me at ease. With the shame I expected to feel, I was also… having fun.
“Ok.” I say, steeling myself for how degrading this might feel. “Can you lift me up by my underarms and…uh, hold me there for a second?”
Mau bent down, hooked his hands under my armpits, and hoisted me up like he was lifting a soaked child out of a kiddie pool. I swiftly pulled up my underpants and hopped back into my wheelchair — into myself — in one, quick, motion.
The spring after I tube-peed with Mau, I was flying again. Me and a new pack of paragliders drove up the same mountain. I was waiting in the front seat for someone to bring my chair to me when I noticed one of the guys peeing on the same scraggly bushes, a little more green now at the edge of spring. A distinct fondness hit me. I took a picture of the field and texted it to Mau, who was not there.
Awwww. Our pee spot. He texted back.
We finished editing our movie over WhatsApp after we left Andalucia. While Mau traveled over rutted-out back-roads through rural Colombia and I sat, wearing no pants, in my living room in Catalunya. Texting each other chunks we had pieced together and song ideas for the different segments. I chose Janet Jackson’s “Control” for the series of landings I cut together. He chose Sia’s “Wild Ones” for the scenes of the group eating Paella; Luisma, the newest instructor at the school, laughing in slow-motion at Jose launching cake off his fork into our other instructor, Pablo’s, mouth; me dancing to some music in my head as dusk fell over the take-off spot at Ronda La Vieja.
Mau told me he was HIV+ on the last day of our paragliding course, during dinner in a crowded restaurant, the table full of our pilot friends. I had just had my first solo flight. Mau had carried me ceremonially from my chair to my hot pink harness at the top of Ronda la Vieja, then he flew down ahead of me to film my whole flight. To be there when I landed. His arms were the opening and closing brackets of my first solo flight. I was exhausted from the day, exhausted from my euphoria, exhausted from how it had changed me. My head was resting on my arm on the table as Mau talked. He gave no indication that he was about to share anything particularly important.
“Hey, you’re a writer. You like stories. I have a story for you…” he said leaning closer to me, working himself up to it while I ate cake off his plate.
I stayed quiet even after the part where the doctor told him his new status.
“I came paragliding pretty much right after I got diagnosed. Which was this time last year.”
“It’s the anniversary right now?”
“Yeah. And I’m staying in the same place, sleeping in the same room, going to all the same places as I was then.”
“Wow. That’s a good story,” I said and sighed over the details. “Thank you for telling me.” I put my head back down on the table.
“The virus is undetectable, its not transmitting,” Mau said into the lull. “If I was hemorrhaging all over you and you had an open wound, you still wouldn’t contract the virus.”
He listed the people he had told so far who had cried. I was thinking how I had spent six years in Kenya voraciously researching HIV and spending time with people in the HIV/AIDS community. Specifically in an orphanage in a forest so refreshing and handsome that I had dreamed of marrying it and devoting myself to the children and people savagely stigmatized for having HIV. A forest called the Mau forest. That was 20 years ago. I did not marry the Mau forest or devote myself to the people there. It hung in my history as bewilderingly intense, unfinished business. Instead, I was paragliding in the Andalucian mountains with Mau the person, who was telling me he was HIV+. I was too awed to cry.
After, I felt like I had missed something. The risk of it when he told me, despite him pulling it off as old news. And all I had said was, “That’s a good story.” I wished I had kissed him. I wished I had said something to reassure him that my desire for him was unaffected. I would imagine the moment somehow recurring and try to figure out how I could have told him how much I wanted him but also that I wasn’t ready to act on that desire. It was always the same result, even in my fantasies. I just listened.
An article about the stigmatization of bisexual men appeared on my Facebook feed around that time and I forwarded it to him and quoted: “In other words, bisexual men are like climate change: real but constantly denied.”
Yes I struggle with this all the time. He responded.
The article mentioned the added stigma of bisexual men with HIV as greedy predators spreading the virus deliberately and ruining heterosexual relationships.
it’s kinda devastating and made me want to hug you forever. I texted him.
Thanks for sending this. Hey, did I tell you I was HIV+? He texted back.
You don’t remember telling me this? I wrote, not entirely believing he’d forget that.
Totally forgot, when did I tell you?
At dinner, on the last night.
You probably didn’t cry so I don’t remember it. ;) kidding.
I definitely didn’t believe he forgot. But it was what I wanted, a do-over.
I thought it was pretty hot that you told me. You having HIV didn’t change what I feel for you, so there was nothing to cry about. anyway, i don’t know why I was worried since clearly it was you who didn’t give a fuck! Hahaha. I texted.
Then I added: I DID cry for you later. Just not because you have HIV. but you weren’t supposed to SEE THAT.
I meant when we said goodbye. We were in the school. Mau was getting a ride with Luisma to catch a train in Seville and I was taking the airport shuttle to Malaga the next day. We hugged, promised to finish editing our movie no matter what it took, assured each other we’d see one another again. Then he left. The instant he was gone, I could feel tears swell. Niv, who had been Mau’s roommate for the week, was in the school with me.
“Niv, I’m going to cry. I’m ok. But I’m just gonna let it out.” I warned him, turned my back to him and let the tears stream silently down my face.
Niv was silent for a long while and then, very softly, he said, “I love him, too.”
I turned around to face Niv in time to see his eyes go wide at something behind me. It was Mau.
“Erin,” he said, and then saw the streaks of tears on my cheeks and leaned over me, kissing my cheek over and over. He moved to sit on the couch next to my chair and took me with him, folding me into his lap and holding me there.
i did see it though, and i heart you. Mau texted back.
I wrote an essay about Mau helping me pee in the mountain and, in April 2017, found out that it had won a literary award. It would be my first time being published in print.
He came to visit me the following June on his way to the Pyrenees to go paragliding with Jose. He crossed the ocean and took a train to my town and I met him at my local station. I wasn’t warmed up yet, but he was full of enthusiasm as we walked to my apartment. He was so proud of me for getting published. He loved the essay so much. After we got to my place, he gave me a beautiful necklace — the green, iridescent wings of a Costa Rican butterfly, ethically harvested after a natural death, and pressed between lucite. He teased me about turning down his kiss on the last day.
“You tried to kiss me?” I said, surprised. I remembered folding myself into him for a goodbye cuddle.
“You turned me down,” he said. Then I remembered all those kisses on my cheek, I had given him my cheek when he leaned toward me. “I took it as you telling me it wasn’t going to happen like that for us.”
“No, not like that,” I agreed. “I didn’t want a fling, and you were just passing through.” If I was going to kiss him, it would be to start something, not end it.
Before this visit, Mau had disappeared from our Whatsapp chat for weeks, appearing once, briefly, to wish me a happy birthday then disappearing again. Then he sent me a series of voice memos telling me that things in his life had been falling apart. Among the reasons was a girl. The first girl he’d had relationship potential with in a long time. And he had been kinda falling in love.
“I just keep thinking, If I commit to this relationship, does that mean I won’t have sex with a man again?” he said.
Why can’t you love your girl and suck some dick? I texted back. Does it have to be all or nothing? Take my advice with a grain of salt as I also happen to think she’s the wrong girl for you.
Why would you say you think she’s the wrong girl, if I haven’t told you that much about her? He texted.
Oh Mau, I texted back, because she isn’t me.
While he was visiting, I took him to lunch at the cafe I go to everyday. We sat in the corner, I pressed my back against the window and picked at the salad on his plate.
He told me about the girl — in graphic and heartbreaking detail — while I slumped toward the table and rued.
They meet, they make out, he walks her home. He prepares himself for his massive confession. He tells her the same story he told me, the same rambling detail, but when he gets to the diagnosis part and is still rambling, she stops him. She kisses him. She reassures him it’s ok. Later, they try to have sex.
“I couldn’t get an erection.” He says. “I was too emotional, too shocked she was so ‘OK’ with me having HIV.”
“How can you want to be with me?” He had said to her.
She said, “What if it was the other way around? What if it was me telling this to you?” It works. They have sex.
“When you said you didn’t think she was right for me, it hurt my feelings. And I thought, I must really care about this girl, because it mattered to me that you would like who I was with.” Mau told me.
That’s a tall order, I thought.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was jealous. But I’m sorry I said that.” I still felt jealous and selfish. I could see the role I’d coveted had never been mine to fill.
“If it makes you feel better, I sabotaged it,” he said.
“Of course it doesn’t make me feel better!” I said — he was in too much pain for me to feel better. “I can be jealous and want you to be happy at the same time.” I wondered, How exactly did he sabotage it?
“I need to lie down,” I said, so we headed back to my apartment.
We pulled a fresh sheet over my bed together, tucking in our respective corners. He lay down on his back and opened his arms for me to lie against him. I breathed him in, the same woodsy scent as when we met, and settled.
“I feel like I can’t come out fully as bisexual until I’m in a relationship, a happy ending,” he said. He radiated distress at how impossible that seemed for him.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as one, big, happy ending. I think there are just all kinds of little ones. Millions happening all the time.”
“You say there are millions, but I don’t see any.”
“This is one right now. Think of the happenstance of us meeting in the first place. Think of the immense geographical distance between us. Think of all the things we’ve been through in the last eight months that could have easily distanced us further, but here we are. And I love you so much.”
“Same,” he barely said, exhaling heavily, glancing at me briefly from the side of his eyes and rolling his gaze away from the risk of it.
“Whatever this is, it isn’t fragile,” I said.
And we napped, fully clothed, me lying as still against him as I could manage. As if he were made of porcelain.
When we woke up, I told him an idea I’d had for ages.
“People tell me all the time what a pity it is that I’m beautiful since no one will want me because I’m disabled. Mostly, I think, because they just don’t see evidence of it. We get so much of our ideas about romance from movies, but the only time I saw a wheelchair in a romantic movie, it was the one where the guy kills himself in the end so he won’t be a burden to his girlfriend. And his death was rendered as a noble, romantic gesture. I am sure I can do better than that. I want to re-create iconic romantic movie scenes with my wheelchair in them.”
“I love that idea! I’d love to do that with you,” Mau said. “Hey, do you want to take selfies now?”
An hour before his train, we set up in the courtyard of my apartment building. We had no idea how to pose, no idea of what we were going for. I synced my remote shutter, set the camera up, and called him to me. We were talking to each other and I was leaning on him as I pressed the shutter button. I expected the photos to be a lot of awkward shots of us looking tense and unsure of each other; instead the whole series came out as posed and sweet as engagement photos.
I felt something click into place when I settled my body against Mau while he was sitting in my wheelchair. Me against him. Him around me. And something inside. I could see the “click” that I felt in the photos — it was like picking a matching pair in a game of memory. That feeling of pride at remembering where the pair was, a fulfilling reassurance to see the match itself.
How much does being in a body I can’t entirely feel contribute to my sense of unreality — this feeling that I am so often searching for matches between me and the world? I can name the series of experiences I think taught me how to disconnect, but what of the impact of the numbness with which I was born? I cannot feel most of my body from my waist down. In terms of paralysis, I am medically referred to as “incomplete.” If I place my feet on the ground, they send no feedback to my brain about the ground. My wheels usually mediate between me and my environment. But my wheels don’t feel the ground either. What I can feel is often muted and indirect. The sensation that is intact, is hyper-intense. Even surreal.
It’s not just an issue of my identity being challenged and erased by how society treats me or how I was raised. It’s also that half of my body isn’t a felt reality to me because I can’t feel it.
It is like I live in a dream of being disembodied, of floating above my body and looking back at it. My legs are dream legs doing dream things. I am looking down at them, but I am not in them. What I imagine has the same sense of reality as what I can see. I construct ideas about what my legs are doing and how it might feel by what I can see them doing, from the patches of sensation I do have.
It’s common for people to construct ideas about what they can do and how it might feel by watching other people who look more or less like them do things. What if no one doing anything looks like you at all? Then you must be your own evidence. Construct a life from what you can imagine, from your other senses reaching out into the world and bringing its details back to you. Make it vivid and thorough, but not delusional. Fantasy is not reality.
But it can become real. They can match.
At the local train platform, Mau asked me where I thought we’d be when we saw each other again. “Maybe I’ll come back to Spain in the New Year,” he said. “Oh! and you should watch the movie Carné Tremula. It’s really sexy, and Javier Bardem’s character is in a wheelchair.”
You know what i just realized? The fact that you posted my comment about “future husband or wife” is the first time that my bisexuality is “publicly” printed somewhere. Mau texted me later that summer.
He had suggested I write a post to go with some of the romantic selfies we took. And I had. It was about his visit and a summary of our relationship up to that point. After he’d read it, I posted it to Instagram and Facebook with our favorites from the shoot.
uh yeah. Want me to take it out? I texted back.
nope. I actually LOOOOOOVE it. ;). He replied.
I love it, too. It was exactly the way you first told me you were bi. Wouldn’t be right without it. How does it feel? I asked.
it actually feels pretty “whatever,” which is FUCKING AWESOME. He replied.
I took screen grabs of the comments people were leaving on Instagram and sent them to him.
Am I misunderstanding something or do people think we’re together? He asked.
Yes, they think we’re together. Are you surprised by that? I feel bad. I typed.
Why do you feel bad? He asked.
No good reason. I texted.
A couple weeks later, I texted Mau that I finally watched Carné Tremula.
There were several HIV references and wheelchairs all over the goddamn movie. I wrote.
yes! HIV, wheelchairs, sexiness, Spain… totally Erin+Mau! He texted back.
I feel zingy! I wrote.
You should write a review for that movie. You are such a good writer. Better mention who recommended the movie — I’m getting used to being in your writing.
I think i’ll write erotica loosely inspired by the bathtub scene instead. Do you want to be in that? I teased him.
I meant the scene where paraplegic Javier Bardem gives his wife oral sex. She grabs a set of pipes on the wall above her head, pulls up, and perches on his shoulders. But I’m a pole dancer and an acrobat — I could do better.
The metal of my wheelchair clicked against the metal pole in my living room like teeth in an open-mouthed kiss. I leaned into the pole and reached for an empty chair that I had set up across from me. I took a selfie. I sent it to Mau with the text: What do I need the second chair for? That one is for you.
Mau has a habit of “disappearing” — not reading my texts for weeks at a time. Sometimes he’ll disappear in the middle of a conversation that never gets finished. Often he will check in but not catch up. Plans and writing projects are left lagging for months.
Generally, he reappears with incredible stories about his work and apologies for being MIA.
I’m glad that although I disappear, when I appear I get really into it. I hope you agree. He wrote me after one reappearance.
Patience isn’t my strongest trait but i do my best for you. I replied.
You’re a bit high maintenance hehehe. But I think you know if I’m not replying, it’s really because I can’t. He wrote.
Often he can’t for reasons like being in the jungle where there is very little internet access or when he is working intense twelve-hour days. Now and then it feels like the irreproachable excuse of an unfathomably chaotic life helps him hold people at arm’s length.
I find Mau’s abstract expressionist use of time frames exasperating (in which “I’ll do that today or tomorrow” means neither today nor tomorrow). I relax myself in the interim by joking with my friend Laura, who suggested once that I write a chapter in my future memoir titled, “HOW FUCKING LONG DO I HAVE TO WAIT FOR YOU, MAU?,” cataloguing wait times between responses to things and what I did in between. But when I scrolled back to make a catalogue of events, I couldn’t see the waiting between texts. Instead, all I saw was how connected we keep each other despite the distance between us, the amount of activity in our lives, and the extreme contrasts between what we are experiencing at any given moment.
Here is everything that happened while waiting for exact dates to visit Mau in November:
On August 7th, 2017, I ask Mau if he wants to meet up when I’m in New York in November. He asks if I can come to Colombia instead. He asks me when I would need to know specific dates. I tell him: the sooner the better, so tickets are cheaper and I can have that gooey, relief feeling of having plans set in place. Preferably by the end of the month.
That early week in August, I have a mermaid-selfie-shoot on the rocks at the edge of the Mediterranean in Salou, Spain. I send about 20 of the selfies to Mau. Mau tells me he loves them and suggests we add The Little Mermaid to our movie shoot. The Little Mermaid was my favorite childhood movie. I swoon at him through my phone.
We talk about our Disney prince crushes, and Mau reveals that having a crush on both Aurora and Prince Philip was how he knew he was bi. Most of my childhood I prayed every night that “God” would “make me right” in terms of my sexuality, he tells me, and I tell him that breaks my heart.
I still haven’t figured out my feelings for either gender, I admit. Because it doesn’t matter what the gender of the person I’m out with is, people will assume they’re my caretaker. Growing up, it wasn’t clear to me whether or not I had a sexuality at all. From my observations of people’s reactions to me and the portrayal of disability, it seemed that I did not. The lack of lust I felt for other people made me worry they might be right. But if I masturbated, if I felt other kinds of arousal, if now and then someone made me want to have sex, I must have a sexuality. I was too busy trying to reconcile everything to wonder about or explore my sexual identity. Is disability a kind of sexuality?
At the end of August, I write a piece called “Boyfriend,” a manifesto of resistance against all the toxic and cruel things people say about disability and dating. I mean to write a triumph, but all the bad examples are true experiences and all of the examples of a boyfriend standing with me against them are fantasies. I am not sure it actually comes off as empowering. I send it to Mau. I feel like something isn’t right with it, but I don’t know what, I say.
Love it. But I want to read it again later when I can fully focus. The first “fuck” is kind of unnecessarily aggressive and takes away from the powerfulness of the rest of the piece, he replies. He doesn’t get a chance to read it again. I have someone else, a woman who is also in a wheelchair, read it. She tells me, earnestly, that people need to read it, so I post it, minus the first “fuck.”
The next week I send Mau a link to a Jezebel article about an artist who drew the Disney princes with dicks. Mau sends me back a screen grab of the drawing of Aladdin who is drawn as having giant, droopy testicles.
Haha. gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “magic carpet ride.” And OMG “A Whole New World” is a duet about flying! We have to make this officially our song, I text him.
In response he sends me a voice memo telling me that his alarm to wake up to in the morning is actually A Whole New World.
“The beginning is very gentle and soothing. It’s, like, nice to wake up to.” His voice goes soft. There is a pause. “Soooo. There you go.”
“Well now it’ll be a bit like waking up to me.” I text him.
On the 16th of September I go paragliding in Andalucía again for two weeks. I text every detail to Mau. During the first week, Mau’s nephew is born, and he sends me photos from the delivery room of a squishy baby, fresh from his sister-in-law’s C-section.
Meet my nephew, Gonzalo, he texts.
Hi Gonzalo! I text back. I look forward to the photos of you holding your nephew.
Will send, he replies. And later does. Several photos of Mau’s gorgeous hands cradling Gonzalo’s tiny head, the baby’s wrinkled hand wrapped around one of Mau’s fingers, Mau kissing his forehead, both of them with the same chin.
I’m sure I just instantly ovulated, I gushed.
Luisma, one of the paragliding instructors, starts to refurbish one of my old wheelchairs so we can use it, experimentally, as a harness for me to fly in. I take video and photos of the progress everyday.
Pablo and I form an impromptu rock band, and I take a video of us playing songs.
Another pilot makes a 360 degree video of one of my flights. I send all the videos to Mau, but his replies lag while he’s working where there is no phone signal.
On September 27th, a mini documentary about my pole dancing goes viral. Mau congratulates me and says he’ll catch up on everything that night, but that night the CDC officially announces that an undetectable viral load means that HIV is not transmitting and poses no threat to sexual partners and he is distracted with excitement.
On the last day of September, he catches up on all the reading that’s piled up from my texts. He comments on every photo and video and story. I feel less like I was paragliding without him.
On October 1st, Mau asks me what my plans are for November. I tell him, again, the dates that I will be in New York, and the dates I would be available to visit him, and he says that he’ll work things out with his boss.
Another week passes. I ask him if he’s worked things out with his boss, and he sends me a selfie looking wiped out, lying in a hospital gown in a hospital bed. With no further context. And he doesn’t answer the phone when I call him.
PLEASE DON’T DIE, WE HAVEN’T HAD SEX YET, I text him, trying to say something funny so he won’t think I will just worry all over him.
HAHAHAHAHAHA, he texts.
Is someone with you?? I ask, and he texts me a picture of his friend asleep in a chair next to his hospital bed with the caption, “the best friend a guy could ask for.” It takes him a couple of days to tell me he is fine and out of the hospital. I am relieved but still mad that he didn’t answer the phone.
On the 10th of October, Mau says he’ll focus that day on getting me dates so that I can have the “gooey, relief feeling.” But on the 12th he texts me that he doesn’t like the dates he’s free and wants until the end of the afternoon to see if he can get us a weekend together.
On the 13th of October, I go to Vienna to visit my friend Sarah for a long weekend. I text Mau approximately 30 selfies of me and Sarah pretending to be in a September issue of Teen Vogue, several of me channeling 90’s Liv Tyler, and a video of me and Sarah pretending to be ponies in a meadow near her house (because Mau said he wanted to “meet” her and that seemed the most appropriate introduction). I don’t hear from Mau.
On October 20th, I go to Paris to celebrate my friend Dasha’s 12th birthday. I remind Mau that I still don’t have dates for my visit in November. I send him a GIF of Cinderella waiting impatiently and a single selfie of me in my underwear on a terrace with the Eiffel tower in the background.
When he checks in the next day, he tells me the Liv Tyler selfies are sexy, that he loves my laugh (which he could hear in my pony video) and is wondering if I’m still in Paris.
“I’ve had a crazy week,” he says. “Several local leaders were murdered.”
We finally talk dates interspersed with our feelings about the bombing that had just occurred in Somalia.
Finally, on the 21st of October, I have actual, locked-in, plane-tickets-purchased dates to visit Mau in Bogotá on the 12th of November. We would be together on the exact anniversary of when we first met.
Two days before I was due to arrive, Mau sent a morning voice memo.
“Want to do our movie shoot when you’re here? I could get us a photographer. We could do this scene from Rear Window. I love that movie. I always say Grace Kelly in Rear Window is the most beautiful woman in film history. If you could find a dress like Grace Kelly is wearing, I will die.”
I texted him back. Could we please have an option a little less intimidating than the “most beautiful woman in film history”?
You don’t seem very excited, he texted.
I don’t know how I’m going to recreate her hair! Mine is too short and layered asymmetrically. I didn’t pack styling tools!
Couldn’t I just get you a hairdresser? … I don’t know. I’m just really excited about this. Unlike some people!
I looked at the clothes I’d packed: comfortable layers for sightseeing in a subtropical highland climate. Warm during the day, cool at night, possible rain. I was not prepared for photoshoots, unless Grace Kelly wore a jean jacket. We could do an “inspired by” type of thing, modernize it a little, I replied.
I’m more for re-creation. You’re in New York City, you can find anything there, he texted back, leaving me the impossible, he-will-die-if-I-find-it dress challenge.
Ok. I will send you dressing room updates.
I kicked myself out of my reticence and into frantic shopping in very wheelchair-inaccessible Manhattan, hopping into shops from Soho to the East Village.
“I don’t have any dresses with that profile,” the lady engulfed in a rack of 1950s dresses at ENZ’s said, examining the screenshot Mau sent me for reference.
“Do you have anything with that neckline?” I asked.
She scanned her racks and pulled a sparkly black top. “Maybe this could work?”
The change room wasn’t big enough to fit my chair, so she locked the shop door and I took off all my sweaters in the showroom. The top looked like a deep V-neck on the hanger, but it sat broad across my shoulders like a boatneck when I put it on, revealing my entire collar bone.
“This is a poodle skirt, but maybe you could turn it around?” She pulled out a thick wool skirt with felted music notes and a guitar iron-on down the front. I draped it across my lap and the gathering at the waistline made it poof. I put on the jewels I had bought earlier. The woman in the dress store happened to have a plastic wine glass. I held it and posed while she took a photo.
I sent the photo to Mau and held my breath.
“Did we get it?” the shop lady asked. My phone dinged.
That dress is fucking perfect.
I would be in Bogotá for four days. Sightseeing while Mau worked. Photoshoots together in the evenings. He arranged a couple, the first one on the afternoon of the day I arrived.
Welcome to Colombia! I got you a hairdresser. He texted when my plane landed.
“Erin, the way I found this hairdresser was so cool!” Mau’s eyes glowed as we were getting dressed for the first shoot. He was buzzing from how it had all come together so fast.
“This guy I hooked up with once texted me out of the blue yesterday. He works in fashion, so I asked him if he could recommend someone who does hair and makeup and he suggested Hernán.”
We set up in the restaurant of the hotel Mau lives in, four blocks from his office. We planned to recreate a still from the tango scene in Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s assassin-love story, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
But the hairdresser wouldn’t be joining us until the second shoot the following night. My hair was frizzy from blow drying without a round brush. I had just had it cut in New York and hated it. Instead of messy, freshly-fucked layers, it was lumpy and heavily bobbed at the middle of my neck. The photoshoot was more important, so I cringed and carried on, trying to picture how we would dance a dance as passionate and intense and close-bodied as a tango with my wheelchair in the shot.
We had time to kill until the light dropped. The photographer, Diego, suggested I sit on the dramatic red sofa. There was no movie-scene reason for this. He asked permission to pull my chair out of the frame. I draped myself across Mau’s lap.
The camera clicked and Gardel’s Por una Cabeza — the tango song from Scent of a Woman — played from Mau’s phone on repeat. He stroked my arms, up my bicep, cupping my shoulder, brushing fingertips up my neck.
“Oooh. It’s so moody. I like moody,” Diego said.
Mau nuzzled his cheek into my neck. His lips opened and brushed against my pulse. His lips closed and pressed into my neck. Is he kissing my neck? He’s kissing my neck, I thought. Electricity ran in rivulets down my body. I arched my shoulders and sighed into his arms, and he reached tighter around me. His hand was possessive on my thigh. Tender on my shoulder. Possessive around my ribcage. My breath caught.
“Hey Erin, why so serious?” Diego teased. My thoughts kept racing. Mau has never touched me like this. Are my reactions allowed to be real? Am I supposed to be performing right now?
The camera clicked. I took a hard swallow, eyes rolling back. I was a ragdoll in Mau’s arms. My jugular vein in his mouth and I, limp as prey.
“Hey, what if you two sit in front of the fire? That might be cool,” Diego said.
Mau released his grasp. I sat up, caught my breath, regrew my bones.
“I’m getting into this,” Mau said, smoothing his dress shirt into his waistband.
There’s no “sitting in front of a fire” scene in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Mau’s stroking unleashed a fever on the room. We were all off script. I was on the floor between his long legs. Heat blazed at me from everywhere.
Mau slowly started to pull my face to his, parting his lips, tracing my jaw with his thumb, tilting his chin to align our noses. His eyes not leaving mine until he was too close to see. Until he was scent. That familiar cologne. The mint of his gum. He pressed his forehead into mine, his nose against my nose. We were breathing each other’s wet breath.
Don’t kiss me.
My body was begging him to kiss me. But if he kissed me in that moment, I would have thought it was just for the photoshoot in a scene that wasn’t part of the original idea. A kiss with no wheelchair and no meaning.
Diego, tripping over the tension, said, “Hey guys, we should be… maybe… getting ready for the dance?”
Mau didn’t kiss me.
Diego and Mau pushed dining tables out of the way, clearing a spot in front of the fireplace. While Diego set up his camera, Mau and I worked out the choreography of getting me fluidly from my chair, against his body. He lunged, pressing a leg between mine to separate them. One hand around my back and the other gripping my right thigh for passion, and to hold my leg in place because I can’t hold it against him on my own. Then he pulled me from my chair to straddle his leg. The first few times he tugged me, I instinctively reached for my chair.
“It’s ok. That’s the idea. I have you,” he said. The next time he pulled my legs to him, I reached my arms up to hang off his neck. We gazed at each other for unbroken minutes as Diego took the shot.
We were posing, but it was supposed to look like movement. Like Mau had spontaneously pulled me to the dance floor expecting to seduce me with his dance skills without one concern that a wheelchair would get in the way.
Mau slid me slowly up his thigh until my hips were against his hips and smoldered at me.
When Diego came to show us the shots so far, instead of placing me back in my chair, Mau shifted me more solidly against his hip, keeping me with him. I leaned over his shoulder to look down at the camera screen.
“How long can you hold me like this?” I teased as Diego blocked the next shot, avoiding reflections from the fireplace glass, testing his flashes, adjusting his light reflector.
“Do you want to go out or do you want to crash?” Mau asks. The Mr. and Mrs. Smith shoot is finished. My shoes are tossed under the table beside the bed. I’m looking at my pile of clothes thrown all over the couch thinking of what I might change into. Wondering how to get from my chair against Mau’s body now that we’re alone. Now that it would be for the two of us.
“I want to crash.” I say.
He lifts me swiftly from my wheelchair to the bed and starts kissing me on the way. My dress falls open across my hips.
He is still in his suit. Just like in the fantasy I’ve masturbated to for months: He comes home from work. He can’t help it, can’t wait, doesn’t even take his suit off. Jacket. Tie. Kneels in front of me. Pulls my hips toward him. Wordless. Spreads my legs around his shoulders and kisses up.
Now, it is happening. He is wearing a suit. Jacket. Tie. I am wearing a black dress with a slit to my thigh. Mau is kissing me and pulling my underwear down with one, slow finger. He is sprawled on his stomach, in his suit. Pulling my legs open, ducking under one of my knees and kissing up. My legs press against his cheeks. My legs can squeeze his face but can’t pull away again. He presses his nose into me.
Fantasy, his beard electric and precisely soft, brushing my stomach, my hip bone, on my right side. His beard where I can feel it on my legs with their particular trails of perfect sensation, some no wider than a fingertip.
Now, his beard is a muted smoothness on the inside of my thigh, left side. Sensation slightly dull. My legs with their trails where I can’t feel temperature or pressure or fingertips.
Fantasy. Hot mouth. Wet mouth. His thick lips in the dip between my pubic bone and leg. The tendon that clenches, right side. Sucking me into his mouth. His mouth where I can feel it.
Now. Hot mouth. Wet mouth. His thick lips where I can’t feel it when he slips across my right outer lip. My paralysis narrowly misses my clitoris. His mouth where I can feel it when he opens me with it. Sucking me in. His tongue inside me.
Fantasy. His hands where I can feel them. Gripping mine. I press into them to leverage my hips. Push myself harder against his mouth. His hand where I can feel it, cradling my head so I can watch him.
Now. His hands where I can feel them. Pulling my tube-dress down to my stomach. Pressing up my torso, brushing my nipples. Interlocking his fingers with mine. I grip his hands, press into them, leverage my hips so I can push myself harder against his mouth. His hand where I can feel it, cradling my head so I can watch him.
Now. His eyes where I can feel them. Looking up at me.
He sees me. He found me. He knows.
His touch blinks off and on across my hips and thighs like fireflies flashing for their mates in a spread of dark grass. My body is a meadow and his touch is a million fireflies. Paralysis takes away feeling, but it doesn’t take away significance. When I can’t feel him touching me, I feel him with me. Atmospheric contact. An ether of want.
Fantasy. I come on my hand. I curl into my own arm. I wonder what he’s doing where he is. An ocean away from me and not yet my lover.
His mouth. His hands. His eyes.
Now, I come. Now, I come. Now, I come. His mouth. His hands. His eyes.
Now, he laps softly. Tender kisses inside me. Now, slow brushes of his lips “shhhhhing” right into my skin. Now, he rises up to kiss me, I lick myself off his lips, his beard. I take off his tie. Start to unbutton his shirt. He presses his hand on mine to stop me. I pant into his chest. Now he holds me with weight. He strokes me down, shoulders, neck, my back. Wordless. He soothes my orgasms into me. Now.
“Do you want to do an erotic shoot while you’re here?” Mau asks as the sex settles. I am still faintly trembling against him. “One with our bodies entwined like this?”
“Yes,” I say.
Hernán, the hair and makeup artist, was pinning a curl to my head when Mau came home from work with a giant bouquet of yellow roses. “Flores for the star,” he said. I glowed and reached for him to kiss me. I cradled the flowers in my arms as Mau introduced himself to Hernán, thanking him for helping us and offering him something to drink.
The double-wide door of the room was left open in invitation to the hotel staff and anyone who happened to pass through the hall. Pedro from the kitchen brought up fruit juices and, later, tea to make fake whisky for the shot. Mau grabbed an assortment of glasses and someone dropped off an extra blanket when the team decided we should darken the color of the couch for less contrast. Hernán retouched my makeup and fussed with my curls between takes. He easily grasped the concept — the integrity of the scene but also the importance of the chair — and was quick to protect my vision whenever anyone forgot to include my wheels in the shot.
Ever since I wanted to marry the Mau Forest in Kenya, it has been my dream to be a hub for all the creative people I know to flow in and out of my home, collaborating and recuperating and connecting. I imagine one day my camp of artists will be surrounded by trees, but for that moment it was in a hotel room in Bogotá with Mau the person at the center, drawing us all in and making it whirl.
The light from the hotel across the street had the perfect amber tones to match the Rear Window still from which we were working. All we had to do was open the curtains and turn the lights off. I was perched regally on the edge of my chair.
Diego said, “Hold your arms up higher. This arm up, that arm out.”
“I can’t,” I said, but that didn’t translate to him as actually can’t. Some other kind of can’t that meant I just wasn’t.
He checked his shots. “Can you put your arms a little higher?”
“Relax, Erin. You should be having fun,” Mau said quietly. I pursed my lips at him to say, it’s not that easy.
“Why are you so tense? Really, tell me,” he whispered.
“I’m physically tense. My back hurts,” I whispered back.
Mau waited while I decided whether or not I would say what I was really thinking.
“I have said ‘I can’t put my arms up’ like, four times and he keeps asking me to do it.”
I can’t relax and collaborate with someone who isn’t listening. But Mau was listening. “What would help you relax?”
“Rub my back, please.” I leaned across his lap and he kneaded between my shoulder blades firmly as Diego adjusted the lighting.
The photoshoot was meant to be fun, but it was also supposed to be perfect. Me, the Princess of Monaco, in a wheelchair. That meant perched at the edge of my seat cushion, tightly holding my scoliosis-limited imitation of a high-society posture. Perching, with my arms not resting on anything, leaves my torso unsupported, and each pose needed to be held for so long. Diego, who could see the shot as he composed it, thought it looked better with me in the impossible pose. I couldn’t find a comfortable and still fabulous compromise. So when the camera was ready again, I immediately perched.
“Erin, just lean back in your chair,” Mau said.
“My posture is more regal when I sit forward.”
“You still look regal when you sit back. It’s more important that you are relaxed.”
I sat back. After each click, Mau took the sherry glass from my hand so my arm could fully rest. Now I was getting the arms right, but Mau saw tension still in my face.
“Erin, think of how I am looking at you.” He was referring to himself as Jimmy Stewart, describing the dynamic between L.B. and Lisa, the characters in Rear Window.
I was posed to face the camera. “I can’t see how you’re looking at me.”
“I’m looking at you with amusement. You annoy me, but you know that you annoy me and you love it. I am also looking at you with admiration. And affection.”
The roses Mau brought me while Hernán was doing my hair are yellow, for the favorite color of Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. There are yellow butterflies throughout One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book we both love. Yellow butterflies that appear every time a character named “Mauricio Babilonia” appears. Which he reminded me when he gave me the flowers. Yellow for Mau.
He has arranged the flowers in a vase on my side of the bed. I am in the remnants of my costume. One of Mau’s dress shirts, sheer black pantyhose, the pearl necklace I wore for Rear Window. Mau takes his clothes off and lies, naked, on his side facing me. I lean back against his bent knees, his arm goes under my legs, his body cradles me. My pantyhose peel off, he unbuttons his shirt off me. I leave the pearls on, my hair and makeup still dramatically 1950s.
He sits up and pulls a rose out of the bouquet he arranged by my side of the bed and holds it under my nose to smell. The rose is cool as it trails up and down my side, across my stomach, down my stomach. He buries his face between my legs, tracing the curve of my hips with the rose, holding the stem so delicately the petals barely graze me. He is licking my clit. He is stroking me where I am wet with a yellow rose.
I’m quivering when he pulls away to grab a condom out of the bedside drawer.
And then he is inside me. Pressed as deep as he can go and holding me there. His body is all around me, and he is inside me.
The rose’s scent clings to the air like I cling to Mau. The rose scent fills the air the way he fills me. Suffused.
Just before I met Mau, my friend Camelia posted to Facebook that she had received the tattooed skull of a goat as a gift. She and her magic goat skull were available to perform rituals for release from bad love.
I messaged her: Hey, Camelia? I know that the skull is supposed to help with love that has gone wrong. But, what about love that doesn’t go all the way? Can it help with that?
I love this, she said. I will ask.
When Camelia says she will ask, she means a deck of tarot cards will speak, using images, on behalf of the skull. When she asked the goat skull if it could help me find love that goes all the way, it said: the Chariot, the Pope, the Empress.
“You can teach Erin to exchange her wheelchair for a throne,” Camelia interpreted. “The Empress is a consort, not a single woman, appropriate for a love ritual. Is there anything specific about this ritual I should know?” She asked the skull, via the cards, and the skull gave her the Emperor.
On the card, the Empress sits holding a shield that looks like a wheel. Her expression is fierce, her posture commands, drawing all she requires and desires to her. The Emperor stands. His arm rests on his belt, and his leg is kicked back with imperial ease, his heel resting on a shield that also looks like a wheel. When the cards are back to back, the Empress has wheels on each side. When the Emperor stands with her, her throne is a wheelchair.
“I feel like I can’t let myself love all the way,” Mau says the morning after we have sex, my last day in Bogotá. “I like the love stories where they don’t end up together, like Casablanca. Where they love each other but they can’t be together. I feel pretty cynical about love, actually.”
Love all the way! I think, with momentary exultation. Wait, can’t?
My expression falls so dramatically as he talks that he pauses gently and says: “I didn’t bring this up as a way to talk about us. But should we have the talk?”
He is talking about obstacles to romance he’s imagining in the future, obstacles that don’t exist between us right now. After days of romance together, when we should be glowing the glow of new lovers, he’s thinking about how cynical he feels about love and he isn’t trying to talk about us? Did none of this count?
I don’t want to have the talk. I want him to help me wash my hair. I want him sitting on the floor of the shower stall while I straddle his lap and lean back to give him room to slowly work suds into my hair. I want him to be unnecessarily thorough in getting all the mousse and hairspray from yesterday’s Casablanca shoot out. Fingers massaging deeply into my scalp and neck sending shivering goosebumps down my spine and arms. I want him to hold the back of my head in the palm of his hand and under the stream of hot water, stroking my hair gently until all the soap is out. I want to put him inside me, lean back onto my elbows and press my hips hard into his, using my shoulders to thrust against him until my arms give out and he has to take over.
Instead I say, “Yes. Maybe we should talk.”
“You start the conversation,” he says.
I take a deep breath. “It’s so weird to me that you feel cynical about falling in love because I’d swear that we are,” I say.
“We have really been Mr. and Mrs. this week,” he agrees. “This doesn’t mean more to you than it does to me, but I don’t want to be in a long-distance relationship.”
“What about the photos? When I share the photos, when I write about this? What if you meet someone else? What if you meet someone who wants to do photoshoots and write about your relationship?”
“I doubt I’ll meet anyone else like you.”
“People thought we were together before when I posted about us…”
“Everything you wrote was true, though,” he says and pauses in thought. “What would ideally happen between us after you leave?”
I don’t say, “Uh, love all the way, actually. Those exact words. I had a witch get her magic goat skull to help me find it once.”
Instead I say, “I want this to continue to grow.”
He is leaking time. He should be getting ready for work. There’s no time to help me wash my hair now. He is radiating distress again. This time, I straddle his lap and kiss him hard. I lick the top of his lip where it curls when he smirks. I suck the entirety of his smooth tongue deep into my mouth.
Mau’s schedule fluctuates unpredictably. What he thinks his day will be in the morning is not always what his day has been by the end of it. We still have the erotic photo shoot that Mau arranged after giving me oral sex on the first day. His confidence with his own idea fluctuates just as unpredictably as his job. After our talk, as he’s getting ready for work and already late — making leaving again in the afternoon unlikely — he tells me to expect that the nude shoot will not happen.
He texts me a couple hours later: if you still want to do it, we’d leave from the hotel for the photographer’s house at four.
I want to do it.
While he is gone, I pluck the yellow petals off the rose he pulled from the bouquet and caressed me with. I slip the stack of petals into the plastic his Jimmy Stewart pajamas came in. I fold it around them protectively. I tuck the small square into the pocket of my carry on.
Later that day, the mountains of Bogotá looming east of the city are dramatically misty. I call an Uber to the hotel, say my goodbyes to the hotel staff who have hosted me so sweetly for four days, load my luggage into the car, and pick Mau up outside his office. We are headed to the Torres del Parque, a building designed by iconic architect and Bogotá native, Rogelio Salmona.
We are meeting Camo Delgado, a photographer Mau has only met once before who happens to specialize in nudes. An erotic photographer Mau happened to be recently in contact with for unrelated reasons. A photographer who agreed to take erotic photos of the two of us when Mau asked after our first night together.
(After the shoot, Mau will take me to the airport and share caramel ice cream with me. Then I will fly back to Spain, and we will continue to not be together).
Torres del Parque, with its staggered layering of brick, is a curvaceous apartment building surrounded by dense trees. Camo is laid back, hanging out his door to welcome us and chuckling when I haul the entirety of 20 days worth of belongings and my wheelchair over a too-narrow passageway between a table and a staircase.
“She’s a pole dance champion,” Mau brags by way of explaining the acrobatics involved. “We met while paragliding. She flies, she dances, she writes.” He brags by way of bragging about me.
Camo’s apartment is a bohemian oasis filled with erotic objet d’art, and a smattering of small plants. An ornately painted ‘ukulele rests on his couch instead of a throw pillow. The wall of windows, plus the elevation of the building, gives a nearly panoramic view of the entire city as the sun sets on it.
We have been welcomed and greeted. I take off all my clothes without reservation.
“Do you want to be in your chair or with us on the floor?” Mau asks.
“In the chair,” Camo and I say simultaneously.
Mau undresses more reluctantly than I do, heading off to the bathroom first. I pose against the wall alone for a while. There’s an ease between me and Camo that puts me into my skin like when I am taking photos of myself. His voice is quiet when he directs me, though he barely speaks. He takes shots swiftly. I move for myself, I pause when he murmurs “yes” nearly under his breath. The rhythm between me and the shutter beats like a rested heart.
When Mau is naked, Camo stands him behind my wheelchair at the angle that’s best to catch the most of the fading light. Mau lifts his penis to rest on my shoulder so it doesn’t get pinched when he presses his body into me for closeness and pulls me toward him to stop my un-breaked wheels from rolling away.
Camo gives sparing direction, we gently caress and hold each other in our own, freshly familiar way. When I miss cues in Spanish, Mau repeats them to me. Lift your head, turn to the side. His penis is against my cheek, tangled in my hair. I nuzzle it. I run my fingers around his testicles. I hold him delicately in my hand, I look up. This is not a recreation. This is a scene of ourselves. And we are solemn.
Camo tells me to turn to face Mau, to raise my arms to his chest and lower my head. He tucks his bare feet around the frame of my chair to hold me in place. I am kissing his belly button. Mau shivers slightly from the tickle.
“Lower,” Mau says softly and then chuckles, “Like you’re gonna blow me.” I lower my head, curl my fingers into his chest hair. I lick him. I have his penis briefly in my mouth. The camera can’t see it, it is only the simple urge to do it.
The natural light sinks dangerously low, and the time left between us is draining like the wash of colour out of the sky. We have to chose, pose with the two of us lying together on the couch like the Carné Tremula scene — like our bodies these past few nights — or something else with me in my chair?
Carné Tremula, I decide. Mau lifts me out of my wheelchair and carries me to the couch. Leaning on his side facing me, I lean against his bent legs, his body a cradle for me, while he kisses and licks the inside of my knee. Exactly as he had done the night before. Before he told me he couldn’t let himself love all the way.
I know the parts of his body he wants to hide from the camera: his penis, his stomach. Basically the area a pillow covers if he holds it across his lap and under his arms. I curl against his insecurities like a shield. I watch him nuzzle me as Camo perches on his dining room table and takes shots, humming when our bodies tangle aesthetically.
Mau’s mouth comes for mine hungrily. He kisses me like he’s forgotten someone else is in the room. Or like that’s part of it. I know this kiss now. When his hand cups my face, my whole body buzzes anticipation. Its depth, the width of it. The slick and swollen compositions of our lips and tongues, our swerving hearts, our long-distance lives.
A couple weeks after I left Bogota, Diego sent a mock-up of the Mr. and Mrs. Smith movie poster we re-created in the first shoot, hours after I’d arrived. We’d posed separately and left it to Diego to put us together. Instead of photoshopping the name “Smith” down the center so we both appear to be leaning against it, he put us back-to-wheelchair-back.
In the photo Mau is standing with his leg kicked back, heel resting against my wheel, hand in his pocket with the mix of ease and command an Emperor might possess.
I’m sitting, my expression fierce with the air of someone who expects the things she desires and requires to come to her. The expectation of an Empress.
My wheelchair is a throne.