Monday, December 12, 2011

Stewart's Story

Stewart returns home to face his past and make up for his mistakes but he soon discovers that everyone wants something from him. In particular, he doesn't trust the motives of his ex-girlfriend's flirty attention.

{Note: This story takes place in between (W)hole and Breath(e), novels by the same author}

            “You just drove that dinky car of yours across the entire country?” Claire huffed into the phone. “Stewart, one of these days you are going to give me an ulcer.”
            “That’s why I didn’t tell you about it,” he said, rolling down his car window and closing his eyes, smelling the salt air.. He was in California again, sitting in his car in the parking lot of his best friend’s apartment building. His Aunt Claire continued to tell him how stupid he had been until Stewart finally interupted her. “Claire, listen, I’m fine. I’m here, everything is good. Can I talk to you later?”
            “Oh, we will talk later. I have more to say to you. What if you had broken down in the middle of the country? What if you couldn’t get help? Giving a little bit of latitude to your weaknesses is not a bad thing, it’s a safe thing.”
            “I’m twenty-six years old, Aunt Claire, I can make my own choices.”
            “You just think about how your choices are going to affect everyone else if you die out on the road, unable to get help.”
            “Thinking about it right now, I’ll get back to you.” From here he could see his friend, Jeff's, apartment on the second floor. The window was open; he must be home.
            “Oh Stewart,” his aunt said with a sigh. “You know I only worry because I love you.”
            “I need to get a place to stay sorted out, okay? I’ll talk to you later. I promise.” He hung up his phone and pushed it into the front pocket of his jeans maneuvering against some resistance. He opened the car door, then leaned across to his passenger seat and grabbed the frame of his wheelchair, putting it on the pavement. Upended on the ground, the little caster wheels spun. He held it steady with one hand and attached the larger wheels one at a time with the other. They clicked easily into place. Getting a grip on the seat cushion, he shifted his butt onto the chair, then lifted his legs over one at a time. The whole maneuver took about thirty seconds. He slid his hands across the rails on his wheels, closed the car door, and locked it. He rested his hand on the door of the car for a moment, smiling at its faded blue. “Good girl,” he said softly.
            No one was in sight. It was a classic Los Angeles day with a comfortable heat and hardly a cloud in the sky. He pushed inside the building, glad that there was no reception area with a person to try to open the door for him and get in the way.
            He entered the elevator and pressed the button for the second floor. During the brief ride up, he moved his cell phone from where it was threatening to burst back out of his pocket and stashed it in the pouch behind his legs. He rolled slowly down the hallway, pushing against the low carpet, and stopped at Jeff's door, giving a quick knock.
            Jeff swung open the door and the look of surprise on his face was quickly replaced with a grin. “Back already,” he remarked. “You just couldn’t stay away.”
            That was the truth. “Good to see you too,” Stewart said. Jeff moved back and Stewart rolled into the small apartment that he remembered so well.
            “Do you want a beer?” Jeff said.
            “Absolutely,” Stewart said. He parked himself beside the sofa in the living room where he could see out the window to the balcony and the street that he had once run down in complete panic. Just looking at it, his heart began to beat a little faster. Jeff walked in and handed him a glass bottle beer, then slumped onto the sofa.
            “Not that I’m complaining,” Jeff said, “But I didn’t see you for seven years and now I’m seeing you twice in six months. Didn’t you have to get back to Massachusetts for the start of the school year?”
            Stewart was in his last year of getting a teaching degree to become a high school science teacher. He looked away from the window and back to his friend. “I transferred,” he said. “I was wondering if I could stay with you until I get set up here.”
            Jeff sat up straight suddenly. “Are you saying you’re moving back?”
            “That’s what I’m saying.”
            Jeff clapped his hands and said, “This is going to be awesome.”
            Over the summer Stewart had reluctantly agreed to come back to California at Jeff's insistence. His friend had wanted him to give a speech at the annual surfing competition. There was a time when Stewart dominated that competition.
            He had been surprised how nice it was to be back in the ocean, surfing again. When it came time to travel back to Massachusetts, he found himself reluctant to go. Stewart hadn’t expected to feel torn as he left. The ocean was pulling him, drawing him to stay. California was his home. It was where he had been born. Despite all the running he had done, what he had left behind here would not stay quiet in his mind.
            “You going to see your dad now that you'll be here longer than a few days?” Jeff said.
            “Wasn't planning to,” Stewart answered.
            Jeff didn't pursue the subject. “You're totally welcome to stay here as long as you need.”
            “Great, my bag is in the car.”
            “Why don't we get it on the way back after the bar? I need to get down there. The kid I hired part time gets off in about twenty minutes.”
            “Sounds good.”
            “Cool, I'm going to call Lee and Leah and see if they want to meet up with us. It'll be just like old times.”
            Stewart chuckled to himself. Jeff's optimism was unbeatable. It was unlikely to be just like old times. The summer he was sixteen Stewart was the local surfing champion, Leah was his girlfriend, and Lee was always in his shadow.
            Outside they started down the sidewalk towards the sunset.
            “Are you okay to, you know, well...walk?” Jeff said.
            Stewart looked up at his friend's concerned face and couldn't help the edge of his mouth twitching towards a smile. “I know where the damn bar is, Jeff. How many times have I crashed at your place?”
            “Okay, yeah, but that was seven years ago. Things are different,” Jeff said.
            “Right,” Stewart said, beginning to push down the street towards the bar. “I wasn't paralyzed.”
            “Now that you mention it,” Jeff said, “I thought something was different.”
            Stewart laughed. “I'm not offended by the word 'walk,' okay? So don't worry about it.”
            Sand was brushed up over the sidewalk and it caught in Stewart's wheels, showering down over his hands. The warm air picked up salt from the ocean as it whipped down the beach. Jeff's small wooden shack rested right at the edge. People crowded around the doorway smoking, more leaned against motorcycles or strolled slowly down the boardwalk nearby. As they got closer, Stewart noticed the wooden ramp on the side of the stairs.
            “This is new,” he said, pushing himself up it.
            “Someone told me I'd get a tax break,” Jeff said, “But I think he lied.”
            "You need an incentive not to break the law?" Stewart called over his shoulder. Jeff followed him inside.
             Stewart paused in the doorway to take in the scene. He had missed this place. Not much had changed in the years he'd been gone. There were a few tables, a long wooden bar, a small dance floor, everything in dark wood. This was where all the locals came. Jeff lived for this place, building it into the perfect hang out.
            Leah was already there. She was leaning over the bar, wearing a mini skirt that didn’t quite cover her butt and a sport’s bra. Her warm honey skin glistened, still wet from swimming. The few patrons inside were all riveted to her. As Stewart’s wheels rumbled onto the wooden floor, she turned and fixed him with her well-honed siren smile. Jeff gave her a wave, then went into the kitchen to get them food. Stewart slowly wheeled forward and Leah joined him at a table. He pulled a chair out of the way and slid into its place.
            “No girlfriend this time, huh?” Leah said.
            "Good. That kid was strange."
            "Be nice, Leah. I care about Elizabeth a lot."
            "Whatever." Leah leaned back and her eyes slowly looked him up and down. “Is your foot supposed to do that?”
            “Huh?” Stewart looked down to see his foot shaking. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Don't worry about that.” He grabbed his knee and pulled the leg further in. “It'll stop in a minute.”
            “That's some weird shit,” Leah said, throwing back her drink.
            “I guess. Does it bother you?”
            “Yeah, I'll be honest. It's hard to see you like this. I remember you in such a different way, you know?”
            “You've changed too,” Stewart said with a smile.
            “Have not.” Leah laughed, smacking his shoulder. “Hey, I didn't hurt you, did I?”
            “Are you kidding? These shoulders are as solid as granite,” Stewart said, lifting the sleeve of his t-shirt.
            Leah touched his neck and slid her hand down to his shoulders. “Oh my God, they are like one enormous brick wall.” Her hand slid farther down his back to the top of the wheelchair.
            “Hey, hey, “Stewart said, “Let's keep those hands where I can see them.”
            “Your foot stopped.”
            Stewart looked down. “Oh yeah.”
            “What does that mean? Like does that mean you could get better?”
            “Sorry, I shouldn't have said.”
            “You can ask me whatever you want, Leah, we're friends. Really, whatever you want to know, just ask.”
            Leah smiled and put her bare foot against his crotch. “Does it still work?”
            “Woah,” Stewart said, rolling back. Her foot fell to the floor in front of her, an anklet jingling. She smiled at him.
            “I really don’t want to do this with you.”
            “Do what?” She leaned forward and smiled again, twirling a piece of her ocean-soaked hair in front of her.
            Jeff came over with baskets of burgers and drinks and put them down. “So,” Jeff said, “I was thinking that tomorrow we should catch the surf together, like old times.”
            “I can’t,” Stewart said, “I’m starting student teaching in the morning.”
            “Oh right,” Jeff said.
            "Saturday, though," Stewart said. "We can go Saturday morning."
            Leah hadn’t taken her eyes off Stewart and he was purposely not looking back at her. She wasn’t really interested in him, this was all a game. A game she was good at and always had been. All she wanted to do was win, not actually follow through on any flirting. But Stewart liked to win too.
            He decided to make her as uncomfortable as he possibly could. He pushed his hands against the seat of his wheelchair, shifting his body and thought score one for me when Leah looked away and fidgeted with her hair.
            “If we get out early enough to beat the tourists,” Jeff said.
            “Yeah, maybe,” Stewart said, looking at Leah. “But you know it takes me a while to get ready in the mornings these days.”
            She met his eye and he couldn’t read her expression. She certainly didn’t look disgusted or put off.
            “What about Lee?” Stewart said. “It’s not the old gang without your brother.”
            “He probably won’t make it,” Leah said.
            “He hasn’t been able to look at me since I came back in a wheelchair,” Stewart said, slapping his lap for emphasis.
            “Oh, so he’s an ass,” Leah said, “What else is new?”
            Stewart started laughing. He couldn't keep up the pretense. “Tell him I want to talk to him.”
            “He's scared to death of you.”
            “I know. And it's ridiculous.”
            Jeff went back to the bar to serve more customers.
            “Are you staying at a hotel?” Leah asked.
            Stewart shook his head. “I’ll crash on Jeff’s couch until I find a place.”
            “Isn’t a hotel easier for you? With, you know, the wheelchair and all?”
            “No. Most hotels are not nearly as accessible as they think they are. A lot easier to get Jeff to help me out than try to deal with them.”
            While they ate, Leah's eyes wandered around the place. Stewart guessed she was looking for a new victim to charm.
            “I'm going to head back to Jeff's, I have to get up early tomorrow for teaching.”
            Leah smiled. “You're getting old. And yet, somehow I stay the same.”
            “Ha. Ha,” Stewart said flatly. He rolled over to the bar and got Jeff's keys.
            Stewart opened his eyes to a still dark room, but Jeff was standing over him. Stewart started back against the pillow on the couch arm. "What are you doing?" he croaked, his voice still asleep.
            "Are you okay?" Jeff said.
            Stewart rubbed his eyes with one hand. "I was making noise?"
            “Yes, a lot of noise.”
            “Sorry. Bad dreams.”
            “I know, I know.”
            Jeff stumbled back towards his room and Stewart sighed. He had been prone to nightmares for years, always happening when he was stressed. Maybe he was more nervous about the student teaching than he had thought.
            In the morning he put on the new khaki pants and button down shirt that he'd bought just for this. When he left the apartment, Jeff wasn't awake. He stopped at a drive through for a coffee, then headed for the school.
            When he entered the building, a petite woman with curly brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses came out of an office and walked towards him.
            "You must be Stewart," she said, holding out her hand.
            Stewart shook it and said, "That's me." No doubt his professor had told her to be on the look out for a man in a wheelchair. Nice and easy to identify him.
            "I'm Betsy," she said. "I'm told that you've already done some observation in the classroom." She started to walk down the hall. Stewart kept pace with her, the wheeling smooth and easy on the waxed tile floor. "Do you feel comfortable getting right into the teaching?"
            "Sure," he said.
            At the door to the classroom, Betsy held it open and waited for him to roll through. Fifteen pairs of eyes fixed on him as soon as he entered. He grinned, but kept his gaze on where he was going, the front of the classroom. There was a tall, thick slab of a desk typical of science classrooms. He pulled up in front of it and looked at the children while Betsy introduced him. "This is Mr. Masterson," she said. "He'll be doing lessons for the rest of the quarter."
            These kids were eleven and twelve. Their eyes were curious, but they were waiting to see what he was like before anyone said anything. Stewart twisted in his chair and pulled a folder out of his backpack. There was no where to put the folder down, though, since the teacher desk was higher than his head. He rested it on his lap.
            "I understand that this week you've been talking about the laws of motion. Who wants to fill me in?"
            The girl front and center was happy to show off her knowledge. There was one in every classroom. When the girl was finished, Stewart took out some transparencies with cartoons illustrating motion. He pulled around the large desk to get to the screen above the blackboard. When he reached for the cord he found that its end was several inches above his hand.
            He could feel all the eyes in the room on the back of his head. There was no way he was going to be able to reach the cord. Things like this made it look like he was less competent than an able-bodied teacher, even though it was the environment that was the problem, not him. Would the observing teacher report that he wasn’t fit for the job because of this? Could he ask her to tie an extra string to it for him? He swallowed, then turned around with a smile on his face. "Who wants to help me get the screen in place?"
            Betsy rushed forward to do it while the kids just stared. Next time Stewart would have to find a way to involve the kids in helping him. It would connect them to him and make them feel more confident. There was still some awkwardness after the slides.
            "Okay," Stewart said, "Look at me." He turned so he was sideways to the kids and lifted his hands off his wheels. "If I want to move forward, what would I do? Pull or push?"
            That got their attention. Stop trying to ignore his wheelchair and use it instead. He showed them forward, backward, turning, and wheelies. Before the bell rang, Stewart said, "You've done great, so I'll open up for some not physics related questions."
            "What's wrong with your legs?" The boy who asked got smacked in the arm by the girl sitting beside him.
            "That's all right," Stewart said, "I'm not surprised it's on your mind. Have you guys taken biology yet?"
            The kids nodded.
            “Well, I was in an accident where my spine was broken. The nerves were torn and I was paralyzed. When you break a bone in your leg or your arm, it can heal. The spine doesn't do that. So my legs are affected only because they aren't getting information from my brain anymore.”
            This opened a floodgate of questions and Stewart answered each one until the bell rang. After the kids had run out, Betsy said, “I think that went very well. I'll see you tomorrow.” Stewart breathed a sigh of relief. With the first day down, it was only going to get easier.
            Even though Stewart told Jeff he had no intention of visiting his father, after school each weekday he found himself in the neighborhood. He took to parking across the street and just looking at the house. He hadn't been inside since he was fourteen years old and his father had sent him to the east coast to live with his aunt. Considering how badly his father wanted to erase the past, Stewart was surprised he still living in the house where Stewart's mother had died.
            But he knew they were there. He saw the family coming and going. A perfect little unit without him. From afar he observed his two little step sisters who had grown so tall and beautiful that he would not have recognized them if he hadn't seen them with his father.
            Stewart didn't know why he kept watching them. He didn't know what he expected to do, but he didn't plan to ever talk to them. When he got back to Jeff's each late afternoon, his friend never asked where he had been.
            One Wednesday Stewart watched as Ellen returned to the house alone. He suspected she had dropped the girls off for some activity. She parked her car and got out.
            Ellen was utterly different from how he remembered her. She was smaller and more meek. Without his cloud of anger he could see the twitchy worry on her face, the way she never looked sure of herself. How could he have screamed at this poor woman? Regret circled his chest. The only thing he had noticed about her back then was that she was so very different from his mother.
            Then Stewart realized she was looking back at him. She frowned and began to walk towards his car. Stewart fumbled with his key, hurrying to get away before she realized who he was. She was beside the car before he could pull away, though.
            She stood just to the side of the driver's door and frowned, looking in at him. He could practically see the gears turning in her head as she tried to work out why he looked familiar. Then her hand flew in front her mouth and her eyes filled with tears. She walked closer and he rolled down the window.
            “Stewart?” she whispered.
            “Hey, Ellen,” he said.
            There was fear in the creases around her eyes. She was thinking about the same moment he was, he was sure of it. In the stairwell of the house behind her, late at night, the only light from the open door of a bathroom on the second floor, her thin body pressed against the wall, and his hands holding her there.
            “It's been so long,” she said. She seemed to be having trouble figuring out what else to say. Though Stewart had seen his father most Christmases, he hadn't seen Ellen in twelve years. After that night when Ellen had confronted him for coming home wasted and he had left marks on her skin from shoving her against the wall, his father had shipped him off to South Carolina to live with Aunt Claire. He hadn't seen his step-mother since.
            “You should come in,” she continued.
            “It’s not that simple,” Stewart said, glancing behind her to the series of steps up to the front door of the house.
            “It is. Really, Stewart. The past is the past. I’ve so wanted the chance to talk to you again.”
            “No, I mean I really can’t.”
            “What do you mean? We haven’t seen you, I mean I haven’t seen you in years, and here you are. Don’t you want to talk?”
            “I can’t come in because of the stairs on the house.”
            She tilted her head and frowned. He realized that she couldn’t see the logo on his license plate and her gaze hadn’t shifted from him long enough to take in the jumble of wheels and tubes on the seat beside him. She had no idea that he was paralyzed. “Wait a minute,” he said. “My dad never told you?”
            “Told me what?”
            “Well, isn’t that just like him?”
            “I don’t understand.”
            Ellen moved back as Stewart opened the car door and shoved his thin legs out onto the ground. The surprise movement caused one of them to start shaking. “I can’t walk,” he said.
            Ellen opened her mouth then closed it again. She looked for a long time just at his legs. He followed her gaze down his jeans that looked like they would fit a twelve year old to his feet in sneakers on their sides, not flat against the ground as they would be if he were going to stand. He just let her look, gave her time to process it.
            Slowly Ellen's eyes rose back to his face and Stewart could read every emotion behind her eyes: shock, relief, then pity. Her tense body relaxed at last. “How long?” she said.
            “Seven years,” Stewart said.
            “Richard never said.”
            She was so easy to read. He saw her trying to reconcile that her husband had never mentioned her step-son almost dying and being paralyzed. “He wishes I didn't exist,” Stewart said, “It's okay.”
            “I never wanted that, Stewart. I hope you know that. I wanted us to be a family.”
            “It's not your fault. It's something between me and Dad.”
            “Can I tell him you were here?”
            “If you must,” Stewart said. “I wouldn't recommend it, though.”
            “Are you living in the area now?”
            “Yeah, I just moved back.”
            “I'd like to be able to reach you. Maybe we could start fresh.”
            Stewart nodded. “That's fair. Let me give you my phone number.”
            Ellen took it, then reached forward and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Good to see you,” she said. He watched as she walked to the house, then he pulled his legs back in and drove to Jeff's.
            The apartment was empty when he got back, so he did some school work and ate chips from the cabinet. When it started getting late he took off towards the bar. As he got close he saw Leah sitting on a curb outside. Her eyes were gazing in an unfocused way at the pavement in front of her. No one else was around. Stewart changed course and headed for her. He pulled up in front of her. Leah looked at his feet and slowly, unsteadily, her gaze rose up the rest of his body to his face.
            "Hey, Stewart!" She smiled.
            "How drunk are you?" he said.
            She flicked her hand dismissively. He leaned forward and gripped her elbow while holding onto his wheelchair with his other hand to keep his balance.
            "Let me get you home," he said. She stood, then leaned over him, her long dark hair brushing against the sides of his face.
            "I knew you couldn't resist me," she whispered and her breath was warm against his forehead, smelling of beer and raspberries. He closed his eyes and clutched the seat of his chair for a moment to get control over himself. It isn't real, he reminded himself.
            "Where do you live?" he said.
            "This way." She started to walk forward, but she was unstable and her long legs seemed to be everywhere at once. Stewart was afraid he was going to run over her feet.
            His phone began to ring. He frowned and grabbed it out of the pouch behind his legs. Pete's mother's name appeared on the screen. Stewart felt the guilt tightening in his chest. "Hang on," he said to Leah, "I need to take this." Leah nodded and promptly sat down on Stewart's lap. He tried to disentangle himself from her limbs as he answered, but she wrapped her lanky arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder.
            "Ms. Morris," he said into the phone. "How are you?"
            "I hate this time of year," she said.
            "I do too," he said. It was the gray period in between when Pete died in the summer and his birthday near Christmas. Stewart had never told Ms. Morris that Pete's death was partly his fault. All she knew was that he had tried to save her son and had sacrificed the use of his legs to do it.
            "Do you ever feel like you're in the wrong life and your real life is waiting for you to get back to it?"
            "Yes," Stewart said. He knew exactly what she meant. Each morning while he did his stretches he had a moment while touching the legs that he couldn't feel where he disbelieved that this was his body.
            Leah began to kiss his neck and he swatted at her with one hand.
            “The house is so empty,” Ms. Morris said.
            “Have you thought about moving to another place?”
            “I don't think I can.”
            “That's okay.”
            “I want to visit you.”
            “I'd like that,” Stewart said. He said goodbye and hung up the phone.
            "Who was that?" Leah said.
            "It was Pete's mother." Stewart pushed forward and Leah gripped him tighter to keep from falling off his lap. She frowned. "Why is she calling you? That was seven freakin years ago and you did what you could. I mean, look at you."
            Stewart's jaw tightened as it did every time someone told him that he had done his best to save Pete. He swallowed hard and tried to keep his voice light. "She needs someone to listen to her."
            "Whatever," Leah said and she returned to nibbling at his neck. The warmth of her breath sent shivers through his torso.
            "Are there stairs at your place?" Stewart said, both to change the topic and because he wanted to know if he'd be able to see her in.
            She grinned at him.
            "Leah, focus. Are there stairs at your place?"
            "I'm on the first floor," she said in a low voice, running her fingers through his hair and giving a mild tug.
            "Pay attention so you can direct me," he said.
            “Turn right up there.” She pointed towards several tall palm trees, outlined against an inky blue sky.
            When they got to her door, Leah tried to fit her key in the lock, but kept missing. Stewart reached around her and touched her hand. The skin was as smooth as he remembered, buffed by the sand. He closed his hand over hers and directed the key into the lock.
            The apartment was a single room, strewn with clothes. Stewart forced his wheels over the obstacles on the floor with some annoyance. He didn't care at this point if he left tire tracks on her clothes. He hoisted her off his lap and she landed on the mattress on the floor. She giggled, rolling onto her back and fixing him with her sparkling dark eyes.
            “All the men around here are such jerks,” she said.
            “Right. So you come to me.” Stewart sighed, but she was already passed out, her head back and her arms wide. If all the men are jerks, who do you turn to? The one guy you don’t see as a real man.
            Stewart left, making sure the door was locked behind him.
            Stewart woke to the sound of his cell phone ringing. Bleary eyed, he felt around beside the couch until he found his empty wheelchair and grabbed the phone out of the pouch.
            “Hello?” he said.
            “Stewart, this is Ellen,” his step-mother said. Her voice sounded tight.
            “What's wrong?” he asked.
            “It's your father. He's had a stroke.”
            “Oh my God.”
            “And I just don't know what to do. He's going to be okay, they say, but it'll be a long recovery. They'll send him home in a few days and I can't deal with him all by myself.”
            “I'm sorry,” Stewart said.
            “You've got to come. He doesn't listen to me, but I know you can get through to him.”
            “I can’t even get into the house, how am I going to help?”
            “I’ll have a ramp put in. Please, Stewart. He needs you.”
            “He doesn’t need me, he hates me. He’s been trying to pretend I don’t exist for the past twenty years.” Stewart pinched the bridge of his nose. “He's going to be furious when he finds out you invited me.”
            “Does that mean you'll come?”
            Stewart sighed. “Yeah, it does.”
            Stewart hung up and put the phone back, then rubbed his eyes and groaned. It was too late to go back to sleep. He had to get up for teaching.
            In the afternoon Stewart began to gather his things back into his duffel bag. He'd just gotten his toothbrush from the bathroom when Leah burst through the door.
            “Beat it, Jeff,” she said.
            “Hey!” Jeff responded from the kitchen, “This is my apartment.”
            Leah turned and fixed him with a stare, raising one eyebrow and he slunk into the hallway.
            “What happened to you last night?” Leah demanded, turning on Stewart. One hand was on her hip.
            “You passed out,” Stewart said, “I went home.”
            “I don't get you, Stewart.” She walked over to the couch where he had been spending his nights and sat down with her legs wide.
            “What's not to get?”
            “Stop packing for a minute and talk to me. You weren't even going to tell me you were moving?”
            “I'm just going to my dad's.” He put his duffel bag on the floor and stopped moving, facing her.
            “Why do you keep putting me off?”
            “Come on, Leah, I know you don't really want washed up old me.”
            “You must have a pretty low opinion of me if you think that I can’t deal with you being in a wheelchair.”
            “Be honest with me and be honest with yourself.”
            “You act like you’re totally comfortable and secure with your disability, but maybe you’re the one who needs to be honest with themselves. I swear to God, when I look at you I just see Stewart. The same Stewart I loved as a kid. The changes are just details.”
            “I wish I could believe that, but I know the kind of men you date and it’s not me.”
            “Sure,” Leah said, snorting. “You know everything. Clearly my pattern is jerks.” And she left the apartment, pulling the door shut behind her with as much force as her lean, muscular arms could manage. The entire apartment seemed to shake.
            The door opened slowly and Jeff gingerly walked back in. “What the hell did you say to her?”
            Stewart glared at him. “I don't want to talk about it.” He continued to pack his things into his duffel bag.
            “You’re about to explode,” Jeff said.
            “I’m fine.”
            “Look, I understand, it’s more than you expected. After hiding away from all us lunatics, it’s got to be difficult to come back and deal with us again.”
            “You’re cool,” Stewart said, a smile creeping onto his face, “I got no problem with you. The others I can handle. I’ve had plenty of people in South Carolina and Massachusetts wanting things from me too. I have it under control.”
            “You sure about that?”
            “Yeah,” Stewart said, not at all convinced himself.
            He threw his bag into the back of his car and pulled his body into the driver's seat. While he disassembled his chair and put it on the seat beside him, he wondered what he would find at his father's house. He had to admit he was curious to see the inside of the house again, to see how it had changed and whether it still felt the same or not. He called Ellen and let her know he was on his way.
            She had done as she said and there was an aluminum ramp over the stairs. It was steep and it creaked and shook as Stewart wheeled up, but it worked. When the door opened Stewart saw the two girls standing in front of him. They just stared at first.
            “Hey,” he said. “Remember me?”
            They were eerily similar, both tall and thin with long blonde hair, both wearing tight jeans and layers of different colored t-shirts. Both nodded at him. One was slightly taller than the other. Stewart tried addressing her. “You're Samantha, right?” he said.
            “Yes,” the shorter one said. “And I'm Sylvia.”
            “You were this tall when I left,” Stewart said, holding his hand out flat at the same level as the top of his wheel.
            “Mom said you were coming back,” Samantha said, her voice much softer than her younger sister.
            “And you didn't believe her, did you?” Stewart said.
            “I did at first,” Sylvia said. “But you didn't and you didn't and you didn't.”
            Stewart nodded. “I'm sorry about that,” he said. They were all quiet for a moment, then Stewart said, “So, has Dad been behaving himself?”
            The girls giggled.
            “I'll take that as a no. Lead the way.”
            They stepped back and Stewart pulled up on his wheels to get over the edge of the doorway. He followed the two girls down the hall. He wheeled slowly while he looked around. A lot was different: new paint color on the wall, new pictures hanging, new types of decorations. He wouldn't have known it was the same house.
            “He's in there,” Sylvia whispered, indicating the back den. The girls backed away. They didn't seem to want to go anywhere near their father. Stewart rolled to the doorway and gently nudged the door open with his knees.
            Inside, the room was dim. A single tall lamp in the corner cast an orange glow across a circle of the floor. The room was set up as a study, but there was now a twin bed with white sheets blocking the rust colored couch. It didn't look like it belonged. Beside the bed was a large, boxy wheelchair with stickers on it indicating the hospital it came from.
            His father was laying on his side on the bed. Richard's face hadn't been shaved in several days and his clothes were stained. He looked like a vagrant Ellen had found on the side of the road more than he looked like Stewart's father. The face of the man didn't move much, but his eyes were staring at Stewart with rage and hatred. To the side, Ellen was kneeling on the ground and trying to change Richard's socks.
            She stopped as Stewart came in and the look on her face was gratitude and relief.
            “What are you doing here?” Richard said and Stewart was startled by the way the words ran together even though he knew that his father's speech could easily have been affected by the stroke.
            “I'm an expert on 'can't move',” Stewart said. He rolled farther into the room.
            Richard grunted and moved his eyes down to the carpet. Ellen stood and lightly ran over to Stewart. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said. “Can I talk to you out in the hall?”
            Stewart nodded and backed up out of the room. Ellen closed the door gently behind her.
            “He needs help with everything and he yells about it,” she whispered. “I'm so frazzled.”
            “It's okay,” Stewart said. “I can handle him.” He knew that Ellen wasn't used to seeing the angry side of Richard. He reserved that for the people he didn't respect. “So what's his situation?” Stewart asked.
            “He's needing to relearn a lot of motion and he is weak on his left side. We have a physical therapist coming to the house each day, but a lot of the time it's just me and I have to go to work. Will you be able to stay with him?”
            Stewart nodded. “Student teaching ends next week and then I'll be free.”
            Ellen looked down at the floor and said even more softly, “You still have money from your mother?”
            Stewart swallowed. “Yeah,” he said, “I do.”
            “We'll pay for your food and you living here and all that, of course.”
            “Sure. It's no problem. Go on now,” Stewart said, nodding to the rest of the house. “Let me take care of it.”
            Ellen smiled and leaned down to take his hands from his lap and squeeze them. “Bless you,” she said.
            Stewart went into the room again, this time alone. Richard's eyes were closed and he didn't respond when Stewart came back in. Stewart assessed the room and decided he needed to get the rug out of the way. It was a thick, patterned rug and Stewart could tell just by looking at it that he wouldn't be able to wheel over it. While his father lay quietly, Stewart leaned over and rolled the rug, pushing it with his feet until it was against the far wall.
            “What are you doing here?” Richard groaned from the bed.
            Stewart looked at him. “Helping,” he said.
            “I don't need you.”
            “Sure,” Stewart said. “Why don't we get you up so I can change those sheets?”
            Richard snorted and didn't move. Stewart grabbed hold of the ugly, shiny wheelchair that was so different from his own. He pulled it to the side of the bed and set the brake. Then he pulled himself as close to the bed as he could get and set his own brake.
            Stewart leaned over, one hand on the edge of his chair to keep his balance, the other getting under his father's good arm. “Okay, here we go.” Thank goodness for the core muscles he still had. “Are you going to help or what?”
            “What's the point?” Richard said.
            Stewart ignored him and dragged his father into the chair without help. He gave it a solid push to get it out of the way and went to find the sheets. Richard slumped and watched as Stewart fixed up the bed.
            “Do you need to use the bathroom?” Stewart asked.
            Richard glared at him.
            “Right,” Stewart muttered. He turned his father towards the bathroom, then got behind him and nestled his knees against the canvas back of the other chair. His arms burned with the effort of pushing both of them, but it worked. In the bathroom there was a seat over the toilet and Stewart helped his father onto it. Then he backed out of the room to give him privacy.
            When Stewart came back in Richard said, “Is this what you do? With this stupid thing?” He rolled his head at the raised toilet seat with handles.
            “No,” Stewart said while getting Richard back in the other wheelchair.
            Richard made a skeptical sound. Stewart said, “You don't need to worry about how I use the bathroom, okay?”
            Before getting his father back into bed, Stewart finished changing the socks that Ellen had been trying to do. He bent down and when he was finished, he pushed his body back up by gripping his own knees and pushing up with his arms.
            He got Richard back into bed and covered him with a blanket, then left him alone.
            Stewart finished his student teaching and then he stayed at the house, prodding Richard and taking care of him while being treated with sullen silence or insults. He wondered how long he would keep doing this. His father was definitely making improvement and the physcial therapist frequently reassured Ellen that a full recovery was likely.
            Stewart suspected that Ellen was hoping this situation might connect him to his father again. Stewart doubted that was going to happen. Richard still hated him and it wasn't as though helping him to get dressed or use the bathroom was making them bond as father and son.
            One day while Stewart was doing some exercises on Richard that the physical therapist had shown them, his cell phone rang. Stewart put down his father's leg and said, “I'll be right back.”
            He backed to the edge of the room and looked at the phone. It was his aunt's number.
            “Claire?” he said.
            “Actually it’s John,” his uncle said.
            “Is everything okay?” Stewart glanced back at Richard, who was trying to turn over and kicking all the sheets off the bed in the process.
            “Not exactly,” John said.
            Suddenly he had all of Stewart's attention and nothing in the room registered anymore. “Oh my God. Are Claire and the kids…?”
            “They’re fine. It’s Ms. Morris.”
            Though the room returned to normal, Stewart felt his chest tightening. “What's happened?” he said.
            “I'm sorry, Stewart, but she's taken her life.”
            Stewart could think of nothing to say. He felt the world change in that instant as his mind tried to re-imagine it without Pete's mother. All the years since Pete died Stewart had kept in touch with her, tried to keep her going. It was the only way he could see to redeem himself from his role on that stormy July day.
            “Stewart?” John said. “Are you okay?”
            “Yeah,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Listen, I'm not going to be able to go to the funeral, they need me here.”
            “I don't need a babysitter,” his father piped up from the other side of the room.
            “Shut up,” Stewart called over his shoulder.
            “It's okay,” John said over the phone. “Everyone knows how much you helped her over these last few years.”
            “Thanks for telling me.” Stewart hung up and sat still for several minutes, the phone still in his hand.
            “My sister okay?” Richard said and Stewart's attention snapped back.
            “Yes.” Stewart turned and wheeled back to the bed. “It's Ms. Morris. She killed herself.”
            Richard snorted. “Is that all? That crazy bitty finally offed herself. About time she put herself out of her misery.”
            Stewart's anger coursed through him so quickly that before he realized what he was doing he had grabbed hold of his father's arm and was squeezing tight.
            Richard smiled. “You see?” he said, “I know the real you. And you're no different. You're just as violent as ever, nothing has changed.”
            Stewart let go and stared into his father's face. Was it true? Had he not changed from the angry little boy he had been? He swallowed hard. His phone, resting on his lap, beeped and Stewart looked down at a text message from Jeff. Come by the bar tonight? Stewart picked it up and texted back, Absolutely. On my way.
            “I'm going to go,” he whispered. He piveted and pushed out of the room with Richard laughing behind him. “That's right,” Richard said, “Run away.”
            Stewart found his step-mother and told her that he needed a break.
            “Of course,” Ellen said. She squeezed his shoulder. “Everything okay?”
            “Yeah. Just someone I know died.”
            “Oh, I'm so sorry, Stewart.”
            Stewart nodded. “I'm going to go out for a while.”
            “Sure,” Ellen said.
            When he got to the bar, it was busy. Jeff was running back and forth from the kitchen and barely had time to even nod. As Stewart looked around the room his gaze stopped when he saw Lee, who had not yet noticed him in the crowd. Suddenly this was looking like a set up. He knew Jeff well enough to recognize it. His friend must have seen Lee there and told Stewart to come without mentioning it to Lee. And Jeff was right. Stewart did want to talk to Lee.
            He edged his way through the people, muttering, “Excuse me” every few moments and trying not to run over toes. When Lee looked up and caught sight of Stewart, his eyes grew large and he glanced around as though looking for a door to escape through.
            Stewart rolled directly in front of him and said, "What is your problem?"
            Lee looked down, watching his shoe as it scuffed at a mark on the floor. "I don't have a problem," he said.
            "Look at me," Stewart said. He waited until Lee finally raised his eyes from the ground. "We need to talk about what happened to Pete and what happened to me, let's go outside where we can get some privacy.” The look in Lee's eyes was fear. Stewart wondered what his old friend thought he could do to him.
            Behind the bar, on a strip of boardwalk between it and the beach, next to a dumpster, they found a private space.
            “You froze,” Stewart said. “You didn't do anything.”
            Lee swallowed, then nodded. “How did you know?”
            “Jeff told me.”
            Lee looked away, crossed his arms.
            “Look,” Stewart said, “It's okay. It happens. None of us knew what to do.” He paused, then took a guess at what was bothering Lee. “I'm not upset that you have your career.”
            “Yeah, right,” Lee muttered.
            Stewart shook his head and smiled. “I hope you'll believe me. I think things happened how they happened and there's no point trying to figure out what we could have done differently. If we did that, I wouldn't have teased Pete and he wouldn't have been out in the ocean in the first place.”
            Lee nodded.
            "You're suffering too,” Stewart said, “I know you are. It's got to be hard that no one can see your wounds, while mine are obvious.”
            “I can't stop thinking about it,” Lee said. “Over and over in my mind. I mean, shit man, look at yourself.”
            “I'm fine, Lee, trust me.”
            “How did Jeff manage to get his wits together and call 911?”
            Stewart shrugged. “Luck?”
            That night, long after everyone had gone to bed, Stewart returned to his father's house. The door creaked open and he rolled into the dark hallway. He thought about packing his bag and leaving right now. Richard wasn't interested in mending anything between them and it wasn't Stewart's job to change that. Things could go back to the way they had been.
            Some part of him already knew he wasn't going to give up. He would see this project through, make sure his father was healed and then he would find his own place and see his sisters there once in a while. That would be it.
            In the morning Stewart continued his routine as though Richard had never upset him.
            “Came slinking back, did you?” Richard said when Stewart brought in his breakfast.
            “Just eat,” Stewart said. Richard was able to feed himself now, a noticeable improvement from when Stewart first arrived. When Richard had finished, Stewart moved into place to help him get into the other wheelchair and into the bathroom. With his arm over Stewart's shoulder, Richard muttered, “Life like this isn't worth it.”
            Stewart rolled his eyes. “You know what? It isn't all or nothing. I've been living for years with less than full function and it's completely doable. You don't have to give up as soon as you lose a little bit. Grow up.”
            “That's rich.”
            “Can we just get through this? Talking isn't necessary.”
            “You don't know,” Richard said, his hot breath hitting Stewart's face. “You don't know anything.”
            “I didn't deserve this,” Richard muttered. Stewart stopped in the doorway to the bathroom and looked at his father. “And I did?” he said.
            Richard didn't answer, but the look on his face said that's exactly what he thought. “You think that I deserved to get paralyzed?” Stewart continued.
            Richard looked at him, eyes burning with anger. “You were such a brat. Stubborn, difficult, diffident.”
            “I lost my mother,” Stewart said.
            “And I lost my wife. You didn’t care how I felt.”
            “I was six!”
            A voice behind them said, “Is this a bad time?”
            Stewart twisted his chair and saw Leah standing in the doorway. He frowned. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
            “You might not stand up for yourself, but I'm your friend and I will.” She walked closer to where Richard was in the bathroom and Stewart just outside it. Looking right at his father, she said, “Your son is a good man. You're lucky to have him. I hope you can see that. Don't be such an ass to him.”
            Both men were too surprised to say anything and Leah turned and strode out of the room.
            “Who was that?” Richard said.
            “We used to date,” Stewart said.
            “What a looker,” Richard said. “Not surprised you couldn't hang on to her.”
            “Yeah,” Stewart said.
            Once he got his father back into bed Stewart felt his own exhaustion. Jeff was right, he was close to bursting. Definitely time for him to visit his favorite place and get some peace. He slipped by the kitchen where Ellen and the girls were eating without them seeing him and got out the front door. While he drove towards the beach, he wondered about Leah showing up like that. Had Jeff told her to? Did she really think telling Richard off was going to help? He had to admit it felt nice that she had made the attempt.
            There was one spot that he always went to relax and reflect. No one else came to this corner, far from the tourist attractions. He sat at the edge of the boardwalk and watched small waves getting tangled in rocks. Between the rocks and him there was sand that was almost as white as snow. The air was thick with salt and all was silent except for the rushing sound of the water itself.
            Behind him he heard light footsteps against the wooden boardwalk. When he turned his head, Leah was walking towards him, barefoot with flip-flops tangling from one hand.
            “I swear to God,” Stewart said, “How do you people get by without me?”
            Leah sat down beside him, her butt on the sandy wood of the boardwalk. He could only see the top of her head. “We manage,” she said. “You don't have to take it all on by yourself, you know.”
            They sat side by side in silence for a few minutes. Then Stewart said, “Pete's mother is dead.”
            “I'm sorry,” Leah said. They both continued to look down towards the water. “Why does it bother you so much?”
            Stewart crossed his arms. “I wanted to help,” he said. “The truth is, if not for me, Pete never would have been trying to surf during that storm. I goaded him into it.”
            “Wow,” Leah said.
            “Yeah. I thought if I could help his mother, I could fix what I'd done.”
            Leah scooted closer to his chair and leaned her head against the side of his knee. “You brought her peace. I'm sure of it. And it's time for you to let it go.”
            “Do you think I've changed?” Stewart said. “Have I become a better person than the one who taunted Pete?”
            “Take it from me,” Leah said, “I've known you most of your life and you have changed. You're not that cocky boy anymore. Don't keep beating yourself up over the past. We were all dumb kids.”
            Leah stood up and walked down onto the sand, turning back with the wind blowing her hair in all directions. Stewart couldn't help thinking she looked like a sea goddess. "Come join me," she said.
            "Do you think that's a good idea?" he asked.
            "I think it's the best idea I've ever had."
            He smiled. He leaned over his legs and placed one hand flat on the sand, but it was too soft and he ended up tumbling out of his wheelchair onto the beach, laughing. His legs were twisted around each other.
            Leah giggled and grabbed his ankles, pulling him down towards her and straightening his body in the process. Though it was dark out, the air was still warm. Leah climbed up Stewart, straddling him. He looked up at her dark eyes and wondered at how strange it was that when they were teenagers, he had never taken a moment to really just look at her. Then she leaned forward and pressed her lips on his. He reached his arms around her and held her tightly against himself. He smelled deeply of her salty hair and honey skin.
            “We’re good together,” Leah said, “And you know it.”
            “Yes,” Stewart said, surrendering. “We are.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Elevator Guy (Chapter 1)

Noel’s Memory Book:

Sonya, my speech therapist, wants me to keep a Memory Book to help me with my memory, which is crap.  That tends to happen when you destroy half your brain.  So this book is for me to try to remember appointments and stuff that’s important for me to remember.  Also to help me to learn to write better with my left hand, since my right hand is curled into a mostly useless ball.  Next time I fall asleep while driving and smash my head in, I’m going to try not to destroy the dominant side of my brain.  That’s the plan.

I told Sonya I’d try this out but I kind of feel like I’m keeping a diary which is about as emasculating as my shit job pressing buttons in the elevator.  That’s right, I press buttons in an elevator at the local hospital.  They call me the Elevator Operator, but I don’t kid myself.    

All right, stuff I’m supposed to remember:

1.        Go shopping for toilet paper.  Rose got me groceries yesterday but no toilet paper.  Situation getting desperate. 

2.        Doctor’s appointment next week for Botox injections in my right arm and leg.  Hate injections.  But seems to help.

The new medical students are starting this week.  I’m considering calling in sick.  The students always stare at me, like I’m some kind of freak, which I guess I am.  Last year on their first day, I left my cane in my locker to give them one less thing to stare at, but that didn’t go well.  It’s one thing to walk while holding onto furniture in my apartment, but it’s much harder to hold onto the wall at the hospital.  No traction on the wall.  I practically ended up flat on the floor, and I don’t need any more facial fractures.  And now, since I’m due for injections, I’m walking worse and worse.  Very unsteady on my feet now.  If I’m totally honest with myself, I’d probably be better off with my forearm crutch, but I only resort to that on my very worst days.

I hate those med students.  I hate the way they look at me.  They’re so full of themselves.  Especially the ones who think they’re going to be famous surgeons some day.  I wish they could see a glimpse of what their lives are going to be like ten years from now.  Maybe they’ll be fighting malpractice suits.  Maybe they’ll have quit medicine.  Maybe they’ll be pushing buttons in a goddamn elevator.

Shit, what was I talking about again?  Right, shopping for toilet paper.  Can pick it up at the drug store.  Need two packages, maybe three.


Chloe’s Diary:

You know what I hate more than anything? 

When you’re sitting on the toilet in a public restroom and the person in the next stall starts talking to you.  I really, really hate that.  I do not want to have a conversation when I’m peeing.  Nobody does.  If people were meant to talk while sitting on the toilet, God would have put phones in bathrooms.

But my new roommate, Olivia Chaw, doesn’t seem to get it.  She does it all the time at home and it drives me crazy.  Seriously, Olivia, you can’t wait two minutes to ask me what I want for dinner so I can finish peeing?   The Lean Cuisine isn’t going anywhere.

And now she’s doing it in a public restroom at school.  She’s talking about the boys in our med school class, who we just met during a luncheon for the entering med school class.  She’s already ranked our male classmates by order of cuteness.  Tell me, who does that?  This girl is insane.

“That guy Graham is number one,” she says.

“Uh huh,” I mumble, determined not to get involved in this discussion till I’ve flushed.  She’s not getting the hint At All.

After two consecutive flushes, Olivia and I emerge from our respective stalls.  One thing I can say for Olivia: she’s a hottie.  She has a petite, heart-shaped face and flawless skin, and although she’s wearing a ton of make-up, she doesn’t need it.  Also, not that I’m into that kind of stuff, but she has a killer bod. 

Olivia checks out her make-up in the bathroom mirror.  I kind of get the feeling that Olivia is on the prowl.  I’m less on the prowl.  Or rather, not on the prowl at all.  Actually, getting a date is pretty low on my list of priorities right now, a little bit below making sure there’s milk in the refrigerator and worrying about world hunger, which is actually really low on my list of priorities too.

“Hey,” she says, “you going back to the luncheon or do you want to find our new lockers?”

This morning, we were assigned lockers near the anatomy labs, to store clothing and other items while in the lab.  I’m not particularly excited about visiting these lockers.  For starters, they probably smell horrible.  The last thing I need is to have the smell of anatomy lab clinging to me while I meet all my new classmates.  But then again, what else am I supposed to do?  Study?

“Lockers,” I say without enthusiasm.

We go out in to the hallway and Olivia hits the elevator button.  The elevator arrives and to my surprise, there’s a guy inside sitting on a little stool.   I couldn’t be more shocked.  Olivia looks as taken aback as I am.  We both stand there, staring at him, not sure what to do.  I almost expect him to tell us that this elevator has been reserved for a private party.  “You getting in?” he asks in a low, bored voice.

We timidly get into the elevator.  Apparently, this guy is the elevator operator because he asks us where we want to go and presses the button for us.  (That or he’s just really really bored.)  I’ve never seen an elevator operator before, except in a Looney Tunes cartoon and that’s usually a dog.  I mean, his job is to press the buttons on the elevator.  That’s not hard or anything.  I could do that on my own and have been since I was five.  Actually, I think when I was five, being an elevator operator would have been my dream job.  Maybe it still is.  Maybe he and I could trade places, like in that movie with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, I forget what it’s called.

The guy is staring at us intensely the whole ride and it’s scaring me a little.  He’s slightly older than us, maybe late twenties, and he’s got this kind of glazed look in his eyes.  I guess operating the elevator is not that stimulating.  He has short brown hair that looks reddish under the lights of the elevator, and a light stubble of a beard across his chin.  It seems like the elevator operator ought to speak with a clipped British accent and be dressed up in some overly fancy royal blue outfit, but this guy is just dressed in casual clothes: sneakers, blue jeans, and a green T-shirt. 

After we get out of the elevator, Olivia takes my arm and whispers in my ear, “Oh god, he was kind of creepy, wasn’t he?”  She then adds: “Although sort of cute.”  I’m starting to think Olivia has divided the male gender up into The Cute and the Non-Cute.  I had to agree with her on this one though.  The elevator guy was a little creepy but also pretty cute.

We pass the anatomy labs, which are locked.  I shiver as we pass by.  It’s cold down here.  I guess they keep it cold because of the dead bodies and all.

Our lockers are in a long narrow hallway around the corner from the anatomy labs.  Olivia’s happy her locker is one of the lower ones, because she’s short.  My locker number is 257.  I open it up and inside there’s… a bloody severed arm!  No, I’m just kidding, it’s empty. 

I try to picture myself coming here every day, pulling out a pair of scrubs and changing to march off to anatomy lab, and I almost smile.  I am now a med student.  That’s sort of cool, right?

Noel’s Memory Book:

The new med students started today.  I still hate them, but I think my anger is improved because I only want to punch some of them in the nose.  Good progress.  Must tell Sonya.

I have good days and bad days and lately the good days are fewer and further in-between.  Today was not a good day.  The splint that I wear on my right hand to keep it in a “functional position” did not want to go on.  That whole arm is just getting worse—the muscles tightening up until the little strength I have is pretty much useless.  My fear is that someday all that will be left of my hand will be a gnarled fist.

My right leg was even worse.  My right ankle kept spasming every time I touched it, going into rhythmic jerking movements that the doctor referred to as “clonus.”  On days like this, I get worried that my time on my feet has an expiration date.  I hope not, obviously.  There was a moment when I considering crawling to the closet and getting out my wheelchair, but the spasms finally calmed down enough that I could get to the bathroom to take an extra pill. 

Unlike my hand, most people don’t notice my legs until they see me walk.  I don’t walk well at all.  At best, I need a cane, and let me tell you, my cane isn’t subtle or decorative.  It’s not a Mr. Peanut cane.  It’s a metal quad cane with four spokes that touch the ground to give me added stability.  And even the cane alone isn’t enough to keep me upright.  My right leg would probably collapse if I didn’t have a brace riding all the way up to above my knee.  And then my left leg (or what’s left of it) is all plastic and metal.  My pants mostly cover up the messes that used to be my legs.

In attempt to look normal today, or as normal as is possible for me these days, I had my cane behind my stool in the elevator.  I didn’t want any of the students to have the pleasure of seeing me hobble along.  They’ll figure it out eventually though, I guess.  I’d like to say I don’t care what those assholes think of me, but it’s pretty hard not to care at all.

I saw a girl in the elevator today who reminds me of Liz.  She looks sort of like Liz, but it’s more than that.  I’m not sure.  She’s cute, anyway.  I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about her that reminds me of the Liz I knew eight years ago, before she became the way she is now.  That old Liz was great.  Before she became Miss Heartless Chief Orthopedic Surgery Resident engaged to Mister Backstabbing Psychiatrist. 

I wonder when that wedding is anyway.  It’s probably at the end of the year.  Liz will make a beautiful bride.  I always thought so.  God, I hate her.

Chloe’s Diary:

In order to postpone the inevitable actual starting of medical school, today we’re all learning Basic Life Support.  We’re learning how to save lives.  This is important stuff, you guys.

In the elevator, Olivia is reciting stuff she memorized last night.  “The ratio is thirty compressions for every two breaths,” she says authoritatively.

Creepy Elevator Guy, which is the nickname we gave him last night, is watching us, and when Olivia says that, he snorts with some mixture of laughter and contempt.  When even the guy who presses the buttons in the elevator thinks you’re a loser, you know you’re in trouble.

Olivia looks pissed.  She tries to stare down Creepy Elevator Guy, who clearly has no intention of getting stared down.  “What?” she says.

“Nothing,” he says and shrugs, but I can tell he’s still trying not to laugh at her.  Yesterday Olivia called him cute and he really is.  Although most of all, I’m intrigued by the thin white scar below his left eye.  And actually, now that I’m looking I can see another scar along his left jawline that’s almost concealed by his reddish brown stubble.  I’ve always found scars incredibly sexy.  Except now I’m staring.  Stop staring at Creepy Elevator Guy, Chloe.  It’s impolite.  People will get the wrong idea.

“This could save someone’s life,” Olivia says.  “This is really important stuff.”

“It sure is,” Creepy Elevator Guy says in a way that makes it really obvious he doesn’t think so.

Olivia mutters the word “asshole” under her breath and either Creepy Elevator Guy doesn’t hear it or he pretends not to.  Either way, I’m extremely relieved to get out of that elevator in one piece.

Noel’s Memory Book:

I saw that girl again this morning.  I think her name is Chloe, or at least, that’s what I heard her friend calling her.  I didn’t catch her friend’s name, but I think they might be roommates.  Between the two of them, the friend is the prettier one, for sure.  But I was never the kind of guy who went for the hottest girl in the room. 

There’s something nice about Chloe.  I like the way her otherwise straight brown hair curls around her ears.  I like the way she chews on her lip as she watches the floor numbers in the elevator.  I like the way all her clothes are at least a size too big and her shirt sleeves come down nearly to her fingertips.  She looks like she’s trying so hard to be like everyone else, but she just can’t quite fit in.  Like she’s playing Medical Student Dress-up.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been attracted to a girl.  At least, in a serious way.  I’m sure they would be mortified to learn this, but there have been a few times when an attractive woman was standing close to me in the elevator and I started to get hard.  It’s been a really long time, as I said, and I can’t control it as well as I used to.  It’s hard to distract myself.  Anyway, it’s not like I would do something about it, like rub against the girl.  I’m not a pervert. 

But this is an entirely different thing.  Liking Chloe isn’t a reflex.  In another time or place, she’s the sort of girl I would have liked to go out with.  But I realize it’s not going to happen in this time or place.  I may have smashed up my brain, but I’m not a complete idiot.

And if I had any doubt in my mind, as the girls were leaving the elevator, I heard the friend mutter something about “Creepy Elevator Guy.”  Apparently, that’s my nickname this year.  All right.  Could be worse.  Last year, there was a guy who used to call me “Gimpy Joe.” 

Chloe’s Diary:

I think there’s supposed to be something magical about the first anatomy lab.  The first time you cut into that cadaver is supposed to be one of those transitional experiences that turns you from a boy into a man.  (I guess in my case, it would be more appropriate to say “a girl into a woman” but I’ve noticed that things that turn girls into women generally involve sex and I really really hoped there would not be any sex involved in this first anatomy lab.)

I got good grades in college, so I’m not used to feeling stupid.  But I did feel stupid, over and over.  My partners in the lab are Olivia, my roommate, which is fine, but then I’m also stuck with Olivia’s number one pick on handsome classmates: Graham Kingsley.  Or should I say, Graham Kingsley, Future Surgeon, as he’s reminded us half a dozen times in the five minutes after we were introduced.  I have to admit, Graham is very good looking in a classic movie star kind of way.  He’s got dark wavy hair, really chiseled and perfect features, and he’s even got a little cleft in his chin, if you like that kind of stuff, which I honestly don’t.  Most girls do though, apparently, because they’re throwing themselves at the guy left and right and it’s incredibly annoying. 

The last of our lab partners is Claire Sheldon: gorgeous, blonde, and tall as the sky.  (I am short as the grass.)  She’s the only girl in the class who looks good in scrubs, and of course, we hate each other immediately. 

For the first half of lab, Olivia and I huddle in the corner and she whispers some rumor in my ear about our professor, Jeremy Conrad.  Dr. Conrad is in his early forties and has brown hair threaded with silver and what seems like a kind face.  He looks distinguished yet somehow approachable.

“You know what I heard?” Olivia whispers in my ear.  “I heard Dr. Conrad comes into the anatomy lab at night and has sex with the female corpses.”

I stare at her.  “Okay, there is zero chance that is actually true.”

“It IS true!” Olivia insists, her voice much louder than I would have liked.  “Everyone knows that Dr. Conrad is a huge necrophiliac.”

The terribly handsome Graham looks up at us, obviously having heard.  I’m blushing, but he seems totally unperturbed.  “I heard the same thing,” he says.

At this point, I don’t even care if Dr. Conrad is reading French poetry to the cadavers at night, I just want Olivia and Graham to shut up about it.  Thankfully, Claire turns to them and snaps, “Can you shut up, please?  You’re all disgusting.”

I spend much of the rest of class watching Graham and Claire do our dissection.  Graham informs us again that he wants to be a surgeon, in case I have early Alzheimer’s disease and have forgotten.  I’m minding my own business until Dr. Conrad approaches me from behind and scares the shit out of me. 

“Chloe, what muscle is that?”

How the hell does he know my name?  My lab partners don’t even know my name.  Dr. Conrad is smiling at me, but all I can think about is what he might be doing with the cadavers at night.  Thanks a lot, Olivia. 

“Um,” I say brilliantly.  “Which muscle?”

Dr. Conrad points with a gloved hand.  I’m wearing two pairs of gloves, although it seems sort of unnecessary considering I’ve barely touched the body.

“The trapezius?” I guess.

Dr. Conrad stares at me like he can’t believe I said something so stupid. 

“The rhomboids?”  Dr. Conrad looks even more horrified. Clearly, I have no idea.  Please somebody put me out of my misery.

“It’s the serratus posterior,” Graham says.  I hate that guy.

“That’s right,” Dr. Conrad says.  My cheeks are on fire.  I’ve never been so embarrassed.

By the end of lab, my brain feels full.  Graham takes off early, leaving Olivia, Claire, and me to clean up.  Claire looks pissed.  She’s muttering under her breath that next time he’s going to damn well do his share.  I’m past caring.  I just want to get out here.

Instead of going to the bathroom where all the other girls are changing, I grab my clothes and go up a flight, so I can be alone.  I sit in the stall for a long time, just trying to calm myself down.  Dr. Conrad thinks I’m an idiot.  Actually, I kind of think I’m an idiot now.  I don’t belong in medical school.  I hate it.  I don’t want to be here.

I pick up my cell phone, wondering who I should call who might make me feel better.  None of my friends from college were dumb enough to go to med school.  They wouldn’t understand.  My parents?  They’d freak out if I suggested I was quitting, especially my dad. 

Finally, I get dressed and go back downstairs to put my scrubs in the locker.  Everyone is gone.  Olivia is probably wondering where I am.  Or else she’s with Graham, hearing all about how he wants to be a surgeon.

I head over to the elevator and press the button.  The door opens and just my luck: Creepy Elevator Guy is sitting on his stool.  I stand there for a minute, frozen.  He stares back at me.  “You coming inside?”

I nod and slip inside and tell him my floor.  He hits the right button, which seems like a bit of a miracle after yesterday.  When there were a bunch of people in the elevator, he was missing about half the buttons.  It’s not like this is a hard job.

I see him crinkle his nose and I know why: I stink.  It's an inevitable side effect of anatomy lab.  Good thing I'm not looking for a boyfriend.

“Sorry,” I say.

Creepy Elevator Guy shrugs.  “It’s the same every year,” he says. 

I snort.  “So I’m typical?”

“Yes, you are,” he says.  “You’ve got that look.  You just had your first anatomy lab and you want to drop out.”

I stare at him.  “What?”  I had just been talking about the smell.

He shrugs again.  “Typical.  Soon you won’t be a first year who wants to quit—you’ll be a second year who wants to quit.  Then you’ll be a resident who wants to quit.  It’s a natural progression.”

This seems like a suspiciously large amount of insight for a guy who runs the elevators, but then again, I guess he’s seen a lot of us come through over the years.  So I’m typical.  That’s not so bad.

He lifts his green eyes to look at me and for a second, my breath catches in my throat.  It’s been a while since I’ve been physically close to a guy and he’s surprisingly attractive.  For a guy who runs the elevator.  “You’re Chloe, right?” he says.  I like his voice.  

“Right,” I say, surprised.  He must have heard Olivia say my name. 

“My name is Noel,” he says.  “So you don’t have to call me Creepy Elevator Guy anymore.”

Oh hell, he heard us.  For a second, I thought I was connecting with Creepy Elevator Guy, but apparently not.  “I didn’t…” I begin.

He shrugs again and the elevator doors open.  It’s my floor.  I hurry home to shower in scalding hot water and possibly bleach. 

Noel’s Memory Book:

Chloe has a positive Fingernail Sign.

The Fingernail Sign is something I made up last year.  I see the med students in the elevator and I look at their fingernails and how bitten down they are.  I call it a positive Fingernail Sign and it’s suggests a pretty bad prognosis.  It means the student is probably going to be miserable all year.

Chloe probably has the most strongly positive Fingernail Sign I’ve ever seen.  Her fingernails look terrible.  She’s only been here a week and I could already see little droplets of blood oozing from the jagged edges of her nails.  She really brutalized her poor nails.

I was never a nail-biter.  I never even got nervous before exams.  I always felt confident I’d do great and I always did.  When I took the MCATs to get into medical school, I didn’t even break a sweat.

Now I do worry, but about entirely different things.  I worry that the shots will stop working on my leg and I won’t be able to walk anymore.  I worry about how I’m going to manage my finances when my parents aren’t around anymore.  And most of all, I worry that a nice, cute girl like Chloe will never be interested in me again.

Actually, that last one isn’t so much of a worry as it is a certainty.

Chloe’s Diary:

My first anatomy quiz is tomorrow.  I’m not going to panic.  Okay, I’m panicking a little.  I just need to relax and not panic.  STOP PANICKING, CHLOE!  Get a hold of yourself, woman.

Graham has seized control in anatomy lab again.  Olivia and I are helpless to stop him, but Claire is the only one who tries.  The two of them bicker like they’re married.  Olivia thinks it’s just a matter of time before they start hooking up.  Actually, I think they’d make a good couple.  They’re both really attractive and very driven.  I think when they fight, there’s an undertone of sexual tension.  Like yes, they’re yelling at each other, but any minute they might start making out.  Any minute now.

“If you don’t move over, I swear to god I’m going to stab you,” Claire says.  She’s kind of intense.  She wants to be an OB/GYN and I can practically see her screaming “PUSH!!!” at a laboring woman.

“You don’t have the guts to stab me,” Graham says.

I’m not so sure.  Claire really looks like she might stab him.  I think despite his confidence, he’s a little worried too, so he steps aside.

Graham has been stripping the spine.  He’s ripped out the vertebrae and now we have to get through the layers of the spinal cord.  We’ve been here an hour and I haven’t picked up the scalpel once.  I don’t even know where my scalpel is.

“Chloe, what are the membranes covering the spinal cord?”

Goddammit, it’s Dr. Conrad again.  Why me?? 

“Um,” I say. 

Graham is watching this little interaction in amusement.  I hate him. 

“Chloe, are you reading the lab manual prior to coming to lab?” Dr. Conrad asks me.

“Honestly,” I say, “no.” 

“Why not?”

“I just don’t get a lot out of it,” I admit.

“That’s not surprising if you don’t read it.”

Oh ho ho, so funny.  What I’d really like to ask him is if there’s some easier version of the lab manual.  Like “Anatomy For Dummies.”  I bet a book like that exists.  I’m going to check on Amazon as soon as I get home.

“Are you studying for the quiz tomorrow?” Dr. Conrad asks me.

“Yes,” I say.  I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. 


I’m going to fail this quiz, aren’t I?  I’m going to get the lowest score in the class.  I’m going to get the lowest score in the history of all time.  I’m going to get, like, negative a thousand. 

Noel’s Memory Book:

Doctor’s visit.  Injection day. 

Rose drove me.  I was so nervous in the car, I was shaking.  I hate these goddamn injections.  She was making chit chat during the drive, because she knew I was scared and wanted to get my mind off it.  It didn’t really help.  I never liked needles, at least not on myself.  Now that I get stuck with them on a regular basis, it’s worse.

I started getting the injections about six months ago.  This was my third set, I think.  Yeah, definitely was my third.  The first time I felt like crap for days after, like I had the flu or something.  The second time was better.  This time, who knows?

When the nurse called my name, Rose came into the room with me without asking.  I probably would have wanted her to come anyway, but I wished she’d ask.  She never asks.  She’s my big sister, not my wife or my mother.  She should ask.

When did it stop being okay to be afraid of needles?  When I was five I got vaccines and I cried, and I got rewarded with a lollipop.  When you’re 29, you can’t cry from pain anymore.  It’s not macho.  No girl will want you.  Although it’s not like any girl will ever want me again anyway.  So I may as well cry, right? 

The doctor doing the injections was real cute.  Dr. McCoy.  She was maybe five years older than me, but she seemed really young and sexy.  She wore a navy skirt that came down just above her knees and I got a good view of her legs.  Just her touching me got me visibly turned on.  Yet another thing I have difficulty controlling now, it’s embarrassing. 

I saw Dr. McCoy looking down at my lap and I was scared she could tell the effect she was having on me.  If she did, she was probably either amused or disgusted, though I’m not sure which would be worse.  I tried my best to distract myself and get rid of the damn erection.  Dr. McCoy didn’t have a wedding band, but I didn’t kid myself for a second that she’d be interested in me.  Five years ago, I think I could have hit on her and she would have definitely gone for it.  As a surgery resident, women were always flirting with me.  I didn’t even have to try back then.

She took my right hand in hers and tried to stretch out my wrist and fingers.  She was real gentle but it still made me wince and I could tell she felt sorry for me.  My fingers don’t move easily.  They tend to curl up into a fist.  I’ve been using a splint, but it just keeps getting worse.  I can’t even really move my fingers anymore on my own and the splint barely fits.  I try not to let on how much this bothers me.  But they’re my fingers goddammit.  Of my right hand, which used to be my dominant hand.  “Do the injections help?” Dr. McCoy asked me.

I nodded.  Injections + stretching + splints make it somewhat better.  But I can’t do much with my right hand anymore.  My handwriting with my left hand is crap, but I’ve been working on it because I’ve abandoned all hope that my right hand will ever function normally again.  The best I can hope for is that it won’t end up as a curled up, immobile, unusable ball.

Then came the needles.  A shot, I could take.  But in this case, the needle was attached to an electrical stimulator that worked on the muscles in my forearm.  When she moved the needle and applied a current, my fingers started to jump against my will.  Dr. McCoy dug around, waiting for my fingers to jump in just the right way.  Every time the needle shifted, I wanted to scream with pain.  Rose was holding my left hand and my eyes started tearing up against my will.  I wasn’t crying, just tearing, but it was still really embarrassing.  I closed my eyes and tried to pretend I was somewhere else.  “It’s okay, Noel,” Rose rubbed my knee.  “Almost done.”

Except she wasn’t almost done and it took for freaking ever as usual.  Dr. McCoy injected the botulinum toxin, the same stuff that causes food poisoning and makes wrinkles go away, into the muscles of my arm.  She’s killing the muscles.  In a week or two, things should start to get better.  My fingers will open up and I’ll maybe be able to use them again a little for basic things.  That will be great.

When she finally removed the needle from my forearm, Dr. McCoy gave me a kind, mildly condescending smile.  “You did great, Noel,” she said and patted me on the shoulder.

I wished it could have been over at that point, but it wasn’t—I still had to get injections done on my right leg.  I wear a Knee Ankle Foot Orthosis on my right leg that goes all the way up above me knee, and Rose helped me take it off so that Dr. McCoy could get at my right calf.  Without my KAFO brace, my knee buckles and my foot scrapes against the floor as I walk.   

I lay down on my stomach on the table and I braced myself as Dr. McCoy cleaned the skin with alcohol.  I got four needles into my calf, to kill the muscle that makes my foot point downward against its will.  I put the brace back on and I was glad Rose was there because I could tell right away it was going to be hard to walk out of here, even though I brought my forearm crutch for extra support.  I hate the way that forearm crutch makes me look, but it definitely provides more support than my cane.  I’d stowed my wheelchair away in a closet and was determined to never use it again.  That was out of the question, at least right now.

After the injections were done and Rose was helping me put my brace back on, Dr. McCoy said to me, “How is your prosthetic doing?”

“Fine,” I mumbled.  In addition to my weak right leg, I lost my left leg just below the knee.  I wear a prosthetic, but it’s still much more stable than my weak right leg. 

“Would you like me to take a look?” she asked.

I tried to shake my head, but immediately Rose was insisting she should look, because she had noticed a red area last week.  I put on the prosthetic myself, so I’m not sure how Rose had the opportunity to notice such a thing, but the two women in the room weren’t satisfied until I’d stripped off the prosthetic and Dr. McCoy was fingering my stump.

It’s embarrassing to admit that my stump is fairly sensitive and under ordinary circumstances, Dr. McCoy’s soft fingers on my flesh would have been enough to bring my erection back.  But my arm and leg were still smarting from the needles, and all I could think about was whether my leg would work well enough to get me from here to Rose’s car.  I knew she’d drive me straight home and then I could lie down until the pain disappeared.

Yeah, it was awful.  But it’s done.  Three months until next time.  Rose already wrote it in my calendar book because she knows I won’t remember otherwise.