I hadn’t noticed Charlie’s tremor in a while. It disappeared during our second date and had been absent when he picked me up, but now it was back with a vengeance. His hands were definitely shaking when we got into the car and he placed them on the wheel. I was a little bit nervous about his ability to maneuver the road with such a bad tremor, but it was still probably safer than if I were behind the wheel.
The drive out of Long Island with Charlie was otherwise quiet. I turned on the radio at low volume, then gradually turned it up louder and louder to fill the silence. Instead of going through the trouble of asking Charlie what kind of music he liked, I simply set the radio to an easy listening station. It felt like we were in an elevator.
We had just crossed from Long Island into Queens when Charlie said out of nowhere: “Who were you talking to in the coat room?”
“Um, it was my…” My brother? My cousin? No, he’d just met my entire family. “It was nobody.” Smooth.
I hoped he’d drop it, but instead he turned down the radio. “It didn’t sound like nobody,” he commented.
I was surprised by his boldness. So far, Charlie had been nothing but nice and meek. This was the first time he’d come close to arguing with me. Plus… wasn’t he dating another woman right now? How could he give me shit about having a phone call with a man?
I didn’t feel like playing along with him, so I said, “Who were you with on Saturday night?”
That got Charlie’s attention. The car swerved slightly and I had to grab on to the dashboard. But to his credit, he recovered quickly. “That was Dawn.”
“So who’s Dawn?”
“This other girl I’m dating.” He said it so matter-of-factly. Like there was nothing wrong with dating two girls at once. I, on the other hand, felt embarrassed by the whole thing and kind of wished I hadn’t asked about it.
“You know what your problem is, Rachel?” My jaw hung open from this bold statement. I was aware that I had problems, but had no idea that Charlie thought he had any insight into them.
“What’s my problem?” I retorted.
“You act like all you want is a nice guy,” he said. “You whine to your friends about how all the men are jerks and you can’t find anyone who really likes you. Except the truth is that you’re just picky. You’re just like every other single woman in this city. You’ve got this completely unrealistic conception of love that real life can’t possibly live up to.”
I was speechless. First, he was completely wrong. I was not picky at all. I didn’t have a crazy unrealistic conception of love. I mean, I was going out with him. Didn’t that say it all?
“I mean, I’m a nice guy,” Charlie went on. “I’m really nice. I’m intelligent. I’m financially secure. But you couldn’t care less. You’ve got a picture in your head of the guy you want to marry and he’s not balding.”
“That’s not true,” I said in what was probably an overly defensive tone.
“It’s not?” Charlie raised his eyebrows. He seemed irritated and I was once again afraid for our safety on the road, but he seemed to be doing pretty well in that regard. Not much traffic either. “If you’re so crazy about me, how come you cringe every time I kiss you?”
I had no idea he noticed that. Damn. “Um,” I said.
“Actually,” he said. “You cringe every time I touch you.”
I didn’t say anything. I looked down at the ruffle of my bridesmaid dress like it was the most interesting thing I’d ever seen.
“You’re not denying it,” he observed.
“Look, I’m just reserved,” I said. “It’s not you.”
“Bullshit.” Then he shrugged. “Everyone doesn’t have to like everyone. Dawn’s the same way. She wants to date me, but she’s still looking around for someone better. That’s why I’ve been dating you.” He added, “But at least she lets me into her apartment.”
“If I don’t like you, then why would I invite you to my sister’s wedding?” I challenged him.
“Gee, thanks for doing me a big favor,” he said. “Because I love schlepping out to Long Island on Sunday and sitting through a six hour wedding.” He took his eyes off the road to give me a hard look. “You wanted a date to that wedding. That’s all you wanted.”
How the hell did Charlie get so much insight all of a sudden? The ironic thing was that while he was calling me on my shenanigans, this was the most attractive he’d ever been to me. He was in tough lawyer mode. I didn’t think ol’ Charlie was capable of it.
In any case, there wasn’t really much I could say to that. All I could manage was a very hollow, “That’s not true.”
“Listen, Rachel,” he said. “I don’t want to waste my time, and I’m sure you don’t want to waste yours either. I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
He was dumping me. Or at least, the most you could dump someone after you’d only been on three dates. I felt a little sting, although I was less upset about the fact that he dumped me than I was about the fact that he dumped me prior to getting to Manhattan. Now we were going to be sitting in the car for at least another thirty minutes in awkward silence.
“Maybe,” Charlie said, his voice laced with sarcasm, “you could go to the next wedding with the guy you were talking to in the coatroom.”
I looked down at the odometer, willing Charlie to drive faster.
As much as I wanted to see Alex the next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to walk over to the rehab unit. I remembered what Alex said yesterday about “the illusion” of talking on the phone. He was absolutely right. In real life, I felt self-conscious around him. And I guess he kind of felt the same way. Once he saw me, he was going to feel embarrassed about the things we had said to each other yesterday on the phone. It was going to be so awkward. And my self-esteem was at an all time low right now, thanks to old inside-out Charlie dumping me the day before.
But I couldn’t stay away from Alex forever. I now had two other patients on the rehab unit and I had to see them at some point. And I knew that the minute I set foot on rehab, I was going to run into Alex. There was no way of avoiding it. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to avoid it.
Sure enough, as soon as I got on the rehab unit, there he was, working with Angie on the mats, trying to improve his upper body balance. The level of his stroke was low in his thoracic spinal cord, so she was working on strengthening the abdominal muscles that remained in order to improve his seating balance. It seemed like they had pretty much given up getting his legs to do anything.
It was good timing, I supposed. If he was working with Angie, that meant he wasn’t going to be able to spend any time talking to me. I approached him with that in mind, thinking I’d just say a quick hi and be on my way.
Alex’s face lit up when he saw me. “Rachel,” he said. “Hi.”
“Hello,” I replied.
He looked tired from therapy, although better than he did last time I saw him. “I want to talk to you,” he said, looking into my eyes as he spoke.
“Oh,” I said. “Um, I’m pretty busy. And… you’re in the middle of therapy. I don’t want to interrupt.”
“We’re almost ready to break for lunch,” Angie said cheerily. She brought Alex’s wheelchair up next to him and he transferred into it himself rather ungracefully and with considerable effort. He then lifted his legs one by one into the footrests.
I must have looked hesitant, because Alex said to me, “It’ll just be a minute. I promise.”
I nodded my consent, then followed him down the hall to his room. He closed the door behind us, which I was grateful for. Once we were inside, he parked his chair by the bed and I pulled up a seat next to him. He cleared his throat and looked mildly uncomfortable now that we were face to face. I suddenly remembered what he said on the phone about feeling self-conscious about the reality of his appearance.
“Listen,” I said, before he could start. “I just want to say that our phone conversation yesterday was… inappropriate.”
He rubbed his knee. “Oh. Um…”
“I mean,” I babbled on. “You’re my patient. Or at least, you were my patient as of a week ago. That sort of talk is totally… well, inappropriate, like I said.”
“Uh huh,” Alex mumbled. “Inappropriate…”
I blinked. “That was what you were going to say. Right?”
“Yes,” he answered after a brief pause. “That was exactly what I was going to say.”
“Well, okay,” I said. “I’m glad we cleared that up.”
“Yeah,” Alex breathed. “Really glad.”
I felt relief that this situation had been resolved so quickly and easily. Well, not just relief. The truth was, I was also kind of disappointed. I hadn’t realized that I had been hoping he’d disagree with me and tell me it wasn’t inappropriate. That he wanted me. And even though it would be wrong, he’d kiss me or something crazy like that. Yeah, right.
I looked down and saw that Alex was flipping the brakes switch on his left wheel on and off. Almost like a nervous tic. He was giving me this odd look. I was having trouble figuring out what he was thinking.
“What?” I finally said.
“Nothing.” He shook his head. “I was just… remembering some things about you. From when we were kids.”
“Oh yeah?” I was mostly being polite. I wasn’t particularly eager to hear any stories to remind me of that year.
“Like, for instance,” he said. “When we kissed.”
I snorted. “That never happened. You’re mixing me up with someone else.”
“No, I’m sure of it,” he insisted, smiling now. “It’s pretty hard to forget the first time I ever kissed a girl. And clearly it was very memorable for you too.”
“I would definitely have remembered that,” I said. “I’m pretty sure.”
“It was just before the winter break,” Alex recalled, still smiling. “We were in math class and I was playing truth or dare with my friend Jim. Jim dared me to kiss you, so… I did.”
As he told the story, the memory came back to me in little pieces and I was kind of surprised I had managed to forget it. Alex dared Jim to put his gum under the teacher’s chair, and Jim had done it. Then Jim returned with the challenge for Alex.
“You’ve got to… kiss Rachel!” Jim declared, very proud of himself for coming up with such a horrific dare.
“Ew!” Alex cried. “No way! I’m not kissing Rachel!”
It was exactly the response I expected from Alex. But then Jim retorted by saying, “You have to. It’s a dare. A double dare.”
Alex considered this for a moment. Then he said, “Okay.”
The next thing I knew, he had leaned forward and pressed his lips against me in a rough and awkward kiss. It all happened so fast, I hardly had time to think about it. He missed my lips by a few centimeters and his breath smelled like soda pop.
“You remember, right?” Alex asked me now.
“Vaguely,” I admitted. “But that wasn’t really a kiss. I mean, you just brushed against me. It was nothing. It doesn’t count.”
“It counts!” Alex insisted. “It was definitely a kiss and it was magical.”
“Magical?” I laughed.
“Damn straight,” he said, grinning. “And do you remember what you did after I kissed you?”
I shook my head.
“You were holding a carton of chocolate milk,” he said. “And you dumped it on my pants.”
Oh yes. I remembered that now. “Sorry,” I said.
“Liar,” Alex said, sticking out his tongue at me. “You hated me. You’re probably glad you spilled chocolate milk on me.”
I laughed, unable to help myself. “Okay, maybe.”
“I have a confession to make,” he said.
I raised my eyebrows.
“Before class that day,” he said. “I told Jim to dare me to kiss you.”
Alex’s gray eyes met mine and I swallowed hard. Illusions or not, computer geek or not, wheelchair or not, I knew that he wanted to kiss me. And I wanted him to kiss me.
There was a loud knock on the door to the room and the two of us both jumped a mile. The door swung open and I imagined for a moment what would have happened if I were kissing Alex at that moment. It would have been bad, to say the least.
“Lunch time!” a pleasant older nurse announced as she carried a tray into the room. She smiled at Alex. “Got you everything you wanted.”
She set the tray down on the table. This would have been a great opportunity for me to leave, but I was frozen in my chair. I watched the nurse pull the cover off the meatloaf and mashed potatoes, then wink at Alex and leave the room. I assumed the wink didn’t mean she thought there was any hanky panky going on in here. After all, I was wearing a white coat and stethoscope. I was a consummate professional.
“I should let you eat your lunch,” I said to Alex.
“Yeah, you should,” he said. He looked over at the tray of food and smiled. “Hey,” he commented. “Look, it’s chocolate milk. What a coincidence.”
I watched as he wheeled over and picked the box of chocolate milk off the tray. It was a small carton like the kind they had in schools for kids to drink from with a straw, and it had been opened for his ease of use. It was probably the same kind of carton that held the milk I had dumped on his lap all those years ago. He held the container out to me and I took it, feeling the cold condensation under my fingertips. And then a second later, I felt Alex’s lips on mine.
I hate it when people try to describe a kiss. We all know what happens when two people kiss, all that tongue on tongue details. It’s not sexy to describe it. But MY GOD that was a good kiss. I almost forgot that what I was doing was very wrong. Like I said, he was my patient. As well as an incredibly good kisser. Really, really, just incredibly good.
When he pulled away, my entire body was tingling. I stared at him and he was grinning at me. “That was nice,” he murmured.
I swallowed. “Yeah…”
He leaned forward again and I realized he was going to kiss me again. And I wanted him to. God, I wanted him to. But I knew I couldn’t do this. It was wrong. I had to stop this from happening, so I did the only thing I could: I dumped the contents of the carton of chocolate milk on his lap.
Alex yelped and stared at me in shock. “Rachel, what the hell?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, standing up, my knees nearly buckling under me. “That kiss was… I mean, it was good, really good, but look, you’re my patient. And you just got dumped and… anyway, I can’t do this. You’re vulnerable right now. I could get in a lot of trouble.”
“I’m not vulnerable,” Alex protested as he tried to wipe the chocolate milk off his sweatpants with a napkin. The milk had been extremely effective in serving the dual purpose of killing the mood and deflating the tent in his pants. “I just like you.”
I heaved a breath. It was going to be damn hard to leave this room. Alex was incredibly sexy, even sitting there covered in chocolate milk. But what could I do? Have an affair with my patient? That was the kind of behavior that would not only get me fired but could also lose me my license.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “One of us needs to be rational. I need to go.”
Alex looked up at me, his gray eyes sad. “If you don’t like me, Rachel, just say so. I’ll understand.”
“I…” I wanted to tell him that I did like him. I liked him very much. That I hadn’t felt this attracted to a man in a long time, maybe ever. But I couldn’t say all that. “I have to go.”
I raced out of the room before he could say another word to persuade me to stay.
To be continued...