I thought I’d have more freedom once the collar came off my neck, but because my neck had been immobilized for so long, the muscles were incredibly weak. Luckily, my wheelchair had a large, deep headrest, and believe me, I needed it. But the sip and puff control was located in a place where I had to stretch my neck ever so slightly to reach it, and after twenty minutes of doing this with Jane, I was in pain.
“What’s wrong?” Jane asked me, seeing how uncomfortable I looked.
“My neck hurts,” I complained. “The controls are too far away.”
It made me really feel the extent of my disability that it was such a trial to move my head forward half an inch to reach the controls. But Jane was really apologetic and adjusted the controls to be closer to my mouth. Of course, then it got in the way a little bit when I tried to talk. She kept messing with them and finally put it just to the left of my lips so that I could turn my head to the left to reach the controls without actually leaning forward.
“Better?” Jane asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “But my neck still hurts.”
“Where does it hurt?”
Before I could answer, I felt Jane’s fingers on the back of my neck, running up and down the scar on my spine. Her fingers were soft. Softer than I imagined they’d be. I missed the sensation of being touched in a place I could feel. “A little higher,” I lied.
Jane’s hands went up the nape of my neck into my hairline. “Is this the spot?” she asked me.
“Uh huh,” I said.
I thought she might pull away, but instead she very gently massaged my upper neck. I’m not sure how much it helped my pain, but it definitely made me feel very good. I don’t know if Jane had any idea how much her touch was turning me on. I was a little embarrassed by the whole thing, but enjoying it too much to tell her to stop.
“Is that better?” Jane asked me.
“Uh huh,” I managed.
“Great,” Jane said, pulling her hand away. “Let’s get back to work then.”
“Why are you such a slavedriver?” I grumbled, trying not to let on how much I enjoyed her touching me and how much I wanted her to keep doing it.
“Because you are lazy, Mr. Edwards,” Jane said, pointing her finger at me. “I’m just trying to get an honest day’s work out of you.”
She was right. I’d never actually worked a day in my life. I never thought that being paralyzed from the neck down would be what would finally get me going.
I quickly got to the point where I had my trach capped all the time and Dr. Greenly decided that I was ready to have it removed. I was really happy about that. I’d learned about Christopher Reeve, the guy who played Superman, and found out that he never regained the ability to breathe on his own. He had to keep his trach in and had a ventilator hooked up at all times. As unwieldy as my wheelchair already was, it would have been a lot worse if I had to attach a portable ventilator. I celebrated on the day that the trach came out. I’d have a scar forever to remember it by.
I had also been upgraded to a regular diet, and got the feeding tube in my stomach out too. That part was good. The bad part was that I still couldn’t feed myself or even close.
I participated every day in something called “lunch group.” Basically, it was a bunch of rehab patients who had difficulty eating, all eating lunch together under the guidance of nurse’s aids and therapists. There were six of us right now. Three were stroke patients, who were learning to eat with the hand that wasn’t paralyzed and also had difficulty chewing. One was a brain injury patient, who was weak on one side of his body and dribbled food out of one side of his mouth. And the last was Brett, another guy with a spinal cord injury.
Brett was eighteen years old and also a quadriplegic. Unlike me, he had a little bit of movement in his arms. I would watch him fumbling with his splints, dropping half the food before it got to his mouth, and I felt intensely jealous. Here was a guy who was clearly severely disabled and all I wanted was to be like him. If only my injury was just a little lower, I could have been feeding myself too.
Instead I sat there with my arms strapped into the arm troughs, waiting for each bite of food to reach my mouth. Sometimes Brett would make comments like, “Wow, I really suck at this.” And I tried to pretend like I wasn’t jealous.
I knew all the aides by now and I had ones I liked feeding me and ones I didn’t like. The one feeding me today was Gina, who I didn’t like. Gina weighed about 500 pounds and apparently wanted everyone else to weigh 500 pounds as well. I was about three quarters done with my food and wasn’t hungry anymore, but Gina wouldn’t let me stop. “You’re too skinny,” she insisted. “Take a few more bites.”
Brett snickered, watching us.
“I don’t want anymore,” I tried to tell her, and while I was talking, damned if she didn’t shove a mashed potato-filled fork onto my mouth. Because I wasn’t ready for it, about half the bite dribbled down my chin. I really hated having food on my face and not being able to do anything about it. At least Brett was able to wipe his lips with the back of his forearm.
I don’t know why Gina was pushing me so hard, anyway. I had no way to burn calories anymore, so I guessed my weight was going to end up being an issue in the future. I didn’t want to think about it.
“Three more bites,” Gina said, holding another forkful of food in my face.
I wanted to ask her to wipe my chin off, but I knew the second I opened my mouth, that food was going inside. So I just sat there, my lips pressed together, until Gina finally gave up.
After I finished eating lunch, Jane came to get me for physical therapy. She found me sitting at the lunch table, food still all over my face and my shirt. She took one look at me and burst out laughing. “My god, Nick,” she said. “What the hell were you doing in here? Having a food fight?”
“Ha ha,” I said.
Jane ran a cloth under warm water and then came over to wipe down my face. There was something sweet and intimate about the way she sponged off my face. It took longer than it had to, and I kind of just wanted her to keep doing it. But then she stopped and said, “We should probably change your shirt too.”
Jane was very used to dressing me by now. She was the one who got me out of bed about half the time and she knew my new body just about as well as anyone. I guessed she’d seen tons of quadriplegic chests but it was still hard not to feel a little embarrassed by my body, the way it looked and all the things it now did without my control. I won’t get into details, but we’d had more than one session interrupted by an episode of bowel incontinence, especially after Mexican food night.
After I was in a new clean shirt, Jane set up an obstacle course in the hallway using traffic cones. Basically, I had to steer between the cones, which was really fucking hard. Even with all the hours I had put in, I still found it really difficult to maneuver with the sip and puff. I knocked over about half the cones, even on my second try.
“This kind of reminds me of your driving test,” a voice from behind me commented.
I puffed on my controls to turn my wheelchair around, even though the voice was one I would have recognized anywhere. It was Mason. He was avoiding my eyes and his hands were jammed deep into his jacket pockets.
“I invited him to come,” Jane said quickly, before I could react. “I asked your mother why you never had any friends visiting and she told me about how you banished your best friend.”
“I didn’t,” I mumbled, even though, of course, I had.
Actually, this was the longest I’d ever gone without talking to Mason in my entire life. We first became friends because Mason’s dad, a bigshot Hollywood lawyer, worked for my father’s company. When we were kids, we’d spend hours at my house playing with my Nintendo or any one of my elaborate and expensive toys. Whenever we were playing softball or football with friends, we’d always make sure to get on the same team. If I was a captain, Mason was my first pick, and I was his. It was obvious why I’d want Mason on my team—he was the biggest and strongest kid around—but it wasn’t as obvious why he’d want me. And then when we were older and Mason became a big jock, we still always went to parties together. I couldn’t even imagine hitting on girls without Mason as my wingman. And I was his wingman.
Now, for maybe the first time in the history of my friendship with Mason, we had nothing to say to each other. My wheelchair made it awkward. He’d never seen me like this and it was weird for him. The same way it was going to be weird for everyone from now on. I wondered if there was any chance for me and Mason to still be friends if I was a quadriplegic.
“Hang on a second!” Jane said, holding up a finger. “Let me get another wheelchair!”
Mason and I stared at each other. “What did she just say?” he asked, looking gobsmacked.
A minute later, Jane reappeared pushing a second sip and puff wheelchair. She pushed it to where Mason was standing. “Sit,” she instructed him.
Obediently, Mason sat down in the wheelchair.
“Now,” Jane said. “Nick, you show him how to use it.”
I spent the rest of my session teaching Mason how to use the sip and puff controls. I felt vindicated when he sucked at it even harder than I did. At one point, he actually ran into a wall. Jane cleared away the cones and the two of us raced down the hallway in our wheelchairs. Then the games degenerated into trying to bash into each other’s wheelchairs like a bumper cars game.
“This is really fun,” Mason declared as he slammed into me going a solid five miles per hour.
“Okay, knock it off, you two,” Jane scolded us. “Those chairs are expensive.”
“That’s okay, we’re rich,” I said, as I rammed into Mason’s chair.
Jane made a face. “Seriously, guys. Cut it out.”
Of course, neither of us were used to listening to girls when they told us to cut it out, so we kept on messing around. Finally, Jane said, “All right, that’s enough!” Then she stormed off in a huff.
Mason raised his eyebrows at me. “Uh oh, did we piss off your therapist?”
“Maybe…” I was surprised. Jane didn’t lose her temper easily. I felt kind of bad that our behavior had upset her so much.
I was stewing over that when Jane emerged into the hallway in her own wheelchair, this one controlled with a joystick. Before Mason or I knew what was going on, Jane slammed into us, practically throwing Mason out of his chair onto the floor. “That’s what you get,” Jane said, smiling smugly.
Mason and I both stared at her for a second, then we bust out laughing. I was laughing so hard, there were actually tears in my eyes. Before this moment, I couldn’t have imagined laughing again hard enough for something like that to happen.
After my therapy session ended, Jane escorted me back to my room, and Mason hung around a little while longer. I noticed he was staring at Jane’s ass as she left the room. He’s always been an ass man. “She’s a really awesome therapist,” he said.
“Yeah, she is,” I said. And then I got scared. He wasn’t thinking about asking her out, was he? I didn’t want Mason dating my therapist. Jane had seen me naked, dealt with all my intimate body workings. She couldn’t become my best friend’s girlfriend. But I felt awkward saying all that to him, so I just kept my mouth shut while he continued staring at Jane.