I am sporting another type of arm candy: My friend, Niral, clutches my forearm with one hand and his red-and-white cane in the other. People stare as we shimmy toward our seats to watch our friend, Matt, model in Great Lakes Fashion Week.
I sense the gawkers and I wonder the same thing: How is my visually impaired friend going to watch a fashion show?
Then Niral whispers, “Can you describe the outfits to me?”
“Yes,” I exhale, relieved.
As models sashay down the runway, I begin my role call. “She’s wearing a sparkly dress. Her hair is twisted in giant loops.”
But things get awkward: The clothing line Matt is wearing rolls out models in skimpy thong bodysuits that elicit catcalls. Niral tugs my arm, asking about the commotion.
“You don’t need to know,” I sheepishly shrug. But he persists.
“Her butt is out!” I blurt, red-faced.
Niral, a boisterous 30-something Indian, wails in laughter.
Niral and his visually impaired friends, Frank and Caleb, all work full time at a major hotel chain and affectionately call themselves the “Blind Mice.” I met the trio through my church and a Bible study I lead at Matt’s apartment.
At first, our interactions were mechanical: I would edit sight-related words out of our conversations for political correctness. Avoidance became my friend. I had spent years in school volunteering with disabled students and summers working at a horse camp for the disabled, but this was different. I wasn’t just an aide; I was a friend. How could I be both without offending?
I didn’t want to bombard the men with questions about their needs like I did with students. But as we were hanging out, things came up: navigating a crowd, finding the bathroom. So I stumbled along, guessing.
At first, many missteps followed. When guiding Niral, I sometimes forgot to announce a narrow door frame or a rock, and both of us would trip in a graceless tangle. As we grew closer, I became comfortable helping with more personal matters — addressing a minor spill at dinner with napkins and a Hey, let me help you out.
But the line between letting him be independent and watching out for him has often been difficult to discern.
Midway through a birthday dinner, my eyes were averted, talking and eating. Suddenly, Niral was coughing profusely. His eyes were bugging out, and his hands were up, signaling choking. My heart raced, I smacked his back and out came a chunk of wasabi he ate accidentally. I sighed relief but I also felt the weight of being his friend.
He joked I saved him. The truth still loomed: Barriers follow him like his shadow, no matter how much he tries to break them.
One day, Niral stormed into Bible study after a bus driver snapped at him when he asked what time he’d get to his stop.
“I wish I could see. Everything could be easier,” he huffed to the group as silence blanketed the room. It wasn’t fair. He’s right. Life would be easier. Far easier.
At the night’s end, I could go down the stairs by myself, get in my car and go home. Not Niral. He faced up to a 40-minute wait for the bus and an hour ride home or the daily cost of an Uber.
Niral, Frank and Caleb needed people to help them.
At times, I was so hung up on how to properly assist the Blind Mice, that I lost sight of what was important: the fact that I was helping at all — something not everyone does.
They’ve encouraged me to be more open to different kinds of people, because all of us have obstacles that we face, some less visible than others. But we all keep going with encouragement from friends, family and the occasional stranger to pick us up.
The best way I can assist Niral is to support his decision to boldly live his life, no matter how many eyebrows are raised. Now I try not to assume I know how to help; I just ask. One Sunday, a churchgoer asked me, Do you think Niral would compete in the water balloon toss? I put the decision in his hands. “Yes,” Niral said.
So we scaled a small ledge that led to the field. I boosted Niral, but my weak, slim frame failed me, and we toppled onto the field, squashing a child on the way down. Covered in dirt and grass, I bashfully apologized to the child’s mom and helped Niral up.
I lined up with him on the field, gulped and tossed the balloon lightly, hoping for a miracle.
The wobbly sphere soared and fell in a tiny red arc of latex and liquid. Niral cradled it in his arms, and excitedly jumped up and down. “Yessssss!” he yelped.
It wasn’t a miracle. It was a reminder that he is far beyond the box society has put him in.
He flicked the balloon my way. I dove, fumbled and popped it. The water soaked my arms and shirt. He laughed, knowing he’d found my blind spot: sports.
He heckled me for losing. “We tried,” I smiled.
We may have lost, but we’re ready to conquer more challenges. After all, we make a good team.