I made it to the rehab unit in the mid afternoon the next day. I was trying to play it cool, but mostly failing. As much as I tried to avoid thinking about Alex, he was all I seemed to be able to think about. I felt like I had to concentrate on every step just to keep myself from inadvertently walking into the rehab unit.
But I had two patients I was following in rehab aside from Alex and that was my excuse for being there. And Alex’s room was right near the nurse’s station and therefore almost unavoidable. As I walked into the unit, I noticed the door to his room was open. Don’t look inside, I told myself, but my eyes were drawn to the room like a magnet. Alex was sitting in his bed, perched on the edge. We made eye contact, and after a brief hesitation, I went inside.
“Hi,” I said.
Alex looked up at me from where he was sitting and it was only then that I noticed how miserable he looked. He was supporting himself in a sitting position with his arms, and his wheelchair was lined up next to the bed. “Hi, Rachel,” he said. He looked away from me. “This probably isn’t a great time.”
Perfect. I could leave and actually get my work done for the day. Except I wasn’t leaving. Okay, the truth was, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to know why he was upset. “Are you all right?” I asked, sitting down next to him on the bed.
He cleared his throat. “Oh yeah, I’m fine. I just…” He glanced over at his wheelchair. “I got cleared to do transfers on my own, so I was about to get up to go to the bathroom, but…”
I frowned. “What happened? Are you worried about falling?”
“No, not exactly,” he murmured. “It’s just so much effort. For a simple thing like getting up to go to the bathroom. And I just feel… I don’t know, frustrated. I mean, this is what it’s going to be like for me to do everything from now on, isn’t it?” His voice broke slightly on those last words. I couldn’t help but remember how when Eva had still been around, his disability hadn’t bothered him nearly as much. And he didn’t even mention the fact that he had failed his trial at peeing on his own, so “going to the bathroom” likely involved putting a catheter into his bladder every four hours or so.
“Well, I can’t say for sure…”
“Come on, Rachel,” he sighed. “Quit playing games. Dr. Cantrell told me he thought it was ‘really unlikely’ I’d make a full recovery and you said the same thing. My legs don’t move at all. Not at all.” To emphasize his point, he smacked his thigh with his hand and his leg only swayed slightly with the impact. “I’m going to need this wheelchair the rest of my life, aren’t I?”
My mouth felt too dry to speak. I thought again about that order for Zoloft in his chart. I thought that once you hit acceptance, you weren’t supposed to go backwards, but here he was. Maybe the stages of grief didn’t take into account getting dumped along the way.
“It’s okay,” Alex said quickly. “I don’t want to whine. I really don’t.”
I believed him. I could tell that Alex wasn’t a complainer by how much the nurses liked him. That was always a sure sign.
“I keep thinking about Eva,” he said. I felt that familiar jab of guilt in my chest at the mention of her name. “I did something stupid last night. I called her. Begged her to take me back.” He laughed at himself. “You can imagine how well that went.”
“I’m sorry,” I managed to say.
“Yeah, me too,” he said. “She was so nice when she told me to piss off, it almost made me feel worse than if she’d been a bitch. I guess she feels sorry for me.”
Alex’s cheeks were slightly flushed and he was avoiding eye contact with me. He started picking at the drawstring on his sweatpants. He was shaking his head and I knew the next thing he said was going to be something really big. I wasn’t wrong.
“I’m never going to find someone else.”
I swallowed. It was like he was echoing the voice that was in my head. But I was the doctor and I had to say something positive. “Of course you will. That’s crazy.”
“Of course I will?” Alex rolled his eyes. “Are you serious? I mean, look at me. I could barely get girls before. How the hell will I ever get a date if I’m in a…” He looked over at the wheelchair. He looked like he wanted to kick it, but of course, he couldn’t move his leg, so instead he shoved it roughly, causing it to roll at least two feet away from his bed and crash into an IV pole.
“Look,” I said, as gently as I could. “Guys in wheelchairs go on dates and get married.”
“Great,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll get tons of responses when I put ‘wheelchair user’ in my online dating profile. They’ll be clamoring for me on the ramp to my front door.”
“Come on. Women aren’t that shallow.”
“Are you joking?” he snorted. “Women are incredibly shallow. I mean, would you date a guy who couldn’t walk?” I paused for perhaps a beat too long and Alex concluded, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
I put my hand on his, but he pulled away. I didn’t know why I felt compelled to touch him, I guess just to comfort him although it wasn’t what I usually did. In any case, my face burned at the rejection until I saw him place the back of his hand against his eyes just in time to catch a few escaped tears. In the weeks since his stroke, this was the first time I’d seen Alex even close to crying. He seemed to be desperately trying to compose himself. This was a guy who wasn’t used to getting emotional in front of other people.
I felt a rush of sympathy for him. He obviously didn’t consider himself any kind of Casanova, although I found it pretty surprising when he made statements about his inability to get a date prior to his stroke. Even from a completely objective standpoint, Alex was a nice looking guy. He was freaking Brad Pitt compared with Charlie, who was currently dating two women. I didn’t understand how Alex could have ever had trouble meeting women. He made jokes about being a computer nerd and yes, he was definitely a bit of a geek, but he didn’t seem like the kind of socially clueless computer geek who loses his virginity at age forty. He was attractive and funny and nice.
Of course, he was absolutely right that things would be different now. Even if he was able to walk again, he’d probably need braces and crutches, at the very least. If he ever had any social phobia, it wasn’t going to get any better after this. Getting dumped by his girlfriend of five years probably wasn’t a great confidence booster either.
“I’m okay,” Alex said, having brushed away his tears. His emotions seemed to be back under control and the vulnerable side of him was gone. “I shouldn’t have… I’m sorry I did that in front of you…”
“Don’t worry about it,” I reassured him. “I’m your doctor, right?”
I thought I was being compassionate, but Alex gave me this look like I had just slapped him. “Right,” he said.
I felt an almost overwhelming urge to reach out and hug him, but then I remembered how he pulled away when I put my hand on his. I didn’t feel like engaging myself in any kind of awkward failed hug.
“I’m okay,” he said again. “You should… go see your other patients. Go do your job.”
I nodded and stood up.
“Wait,” Alex said.
My heart leapt on my chest. “Yes?”
I saw he was reaching out for his wheelchair, which was just outside the grasp of his fingers. “Um, can you bring my chair a little closer, please?” He cleared his throat. “I guess I shouldn’t have pushed it away. That was pretty dumb.”
I didn’t comment. Instead, I pushed the chair so that it was back alongside the bed and left Alex alone to do his transfer.
That night in my apartment, I was debating between two equally unappealing boxes of Lean Cuisine when my cell phone started ringing. I noticed Charlie’s number and involuntarily cringed. I realized we had to make plans for the weekend though, so I picked up.
“Hi, Charlie,” I said.
“You knew it was me,” he noted, sounding pleased. “You programmed my number into your phone?”
I had—a fact that I was mildly embarrassed to admit. “Sort of.”
“Are we still on for Sunday?” he asked. I was impressed by the amount of enthusiasm he managed to muster for this random wedding.
“Yeah, definitely,” I said. I hesitated. “As long as you’re still interested…”
“Sure,” he said. “I thought I’d rent us a car and we could drive out there.”
That sounded like an incredibly good idea. Ever since the gigantic and frilly lavender dress had arrived that I was supposed to wear to the wedding, I had been wondering what the hell I was going to do with it on the Long Island Railroad. “That sounds great.”
I couldn’t help but feel a little impressed with Charlie for a change. He was actually being pretty thoughtful. I wondered about the blonde from Saturday and if she knew he was going to a wedding with me. Weddings were serious stuff.
There was a pause on the phone and for a second, I was scared he was going to ask to come over. Despite his thoughtfulness, I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing him. Especially if we were going to be stuck in a car together for two hours on the drive to Long Island this Sunday.
“Well, how about I pick you up around eleven?” he asked. “That should give us plenty of time.”
“That sounds great,” I said, relieved that the conversation was coming to a natural conclusion. “I’ll see you on Sunday.”
There was another pause and I held my breath until Charlie said, “Okay. See you Sunday, Rachel.”
I let out my breath when we hung up. Charlie’s feelings for me remained a bit of a mystery, but my feelings for him seemed an even bigger mystery. Charlie was a nice guy, but I realized that he was never going to give me the same tingle that Alex did when I was eleven. Or now.