The first time Jane took me to the gym was kind of rough. Not because of what we did there, but because the whole goddamn gym was lined with mirrors. Almost all the walls were mirrors, and the one normal wall had a bunch of full length mirrors set up of in front of it.
The gym consisted of some exercise machines, sets of parallel bars, and a lot of mats. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a youngish guy walking along the parallel bars with the help of a therapist. Instead of legs, he had prosthetics up to his mid-thighs. I stared at him for a minute, because it was hard not to. He looked like such a freak with those metal legs.
Then I caught a glimpse of a severely disabled man across the room. He looked so stiff and helpless, strapped into a big, bulky wheelchair. “I wonder what kind of therapy he’s going to be able to do,” I thought to myself.
And then about five seconds later, I realized the severely disabled man was me, reflected in a mirror.
It was the first time I’d seen myself in a mirror since my accident and it was pretty horrifying. I honestly couldn’t recognize myself at all. Even my face looked different. My hair had always been worn long since high school, but now it was clipped about an inch from my skull. And my face looked much thinner than it had been before.
But obviously, the biggest difference was how I looked from the neck down. I’d seen severely disabled people a handful of times and that was just how I looked. There was absolutely no evidence in my lifeless limbs that six months ago I had been walking. My arms and legs, strapped down to the chair, looked fragile and useless. And under the T-shirt I was wearing, I was able to see my abdominal contents straining against the flaccid muscles in my abdomen. My belly was big enough to flop over the seatbelt on my lap.
On the way to where I used to go to grade school, there was a school for disabled children. We always used to pass it in the car when my nanny Elsa used to drive me to school. I used to stare at the kids, and Elsa would say, “Don’t stare, Nicky.” And I’d tell her to shut-up. Except now I was just as disabled as the kids I used to stare at. More disabled than those kids. Everywhere I went from now on, people were going to gawk at me.
I felt sick.
“Nick, you okay?” Jane asked me.
“I’m fine,” I said, too embarrassed to articulate what I was thinking. But I vowed that after I got out of this place, nobody was going to see me like this. I wasn’t going to flaunt myself in public. I’d just stay in the house and let the servants get stuff for me. I couldn’t even imagine running into someone I knew from high school or something. That would be mortifying.
“Nick?” Jane was saying.
Jane put her hands on her hips. “Are you listening to me?”
“Then what did I just say?”
“What’s the difference?” I mumbled, still staring at myself in the glass on the wall.
Jane’s eyes softened. She put her hand on my shoulder. “Is this the first time you’re seeing yourself?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Nick, look at me,” Jane said. When I didn’t comply, she placed a finger under my chin to direct my gaze up to her face. “That’s better.”
“I really just don’t feel in the mood for riding around in my cripple-mobile,” I said. “I mean, what’s the fucking point?”
“The point is, this wheelchair is what gives you your independence,” Jane said.
“Independence?” I snorted. “Look at me, Jane. I can’t do anything myself anymore. And everyone who looks at me is going to realize how disabled I am.”
“Yeah, so what?” Jane said. “Yes, you’re disabled. So are a lot of people. Get over yourself.”
“Look at me!” I almost screamed. A few heads turned, but I was beyond caring. “I’m a freak!”
“No,” Jane said. “You’re not a freak. You’re a man with a disability. There’s a big difference.”
“Not to me. Not to every fucking person on the planet.”
“You’re still an attractive guy, Nick,” Jane said.
“Stop fucking patronizing me.”
“I would never, ever do that,” Jane said.
I looked up into Jane’s pale blue eyes and the crazy thing was, I didn’t think she was bullshitting me. The way she was looking at me… I got this feeling that…
Well, let’s just say that when other girls looked at me that way, I had a very interesting evening.
I forced myself to face the mirror again. Attractive? No, I wasn’t that. I don’t think the words “sexy” or “attractive” would ever be used accurately to describe me again. But I guess, from the neck up, it could have been worse. Most people used to think I was really good looking before, and I guess that hadn’t changed significantly. I could stand to gain back a few pounds though.
“You ready to get back to work?” Jane asked me. That look in her eyes was completely gone and she was all business again.
“All right,” I said.
OK, it probably wasn’t realistic to say I was never going out again. Maybe I’d just avoid certain places where I’d be likely to run into someone I used to know, like the yacht club.
Another thing Jane did with me was to stretch out my limbs. As a quadriplegic, I was at risk for tightening of the muscles in my paralyzed arms and legs, and the stretches helped with that. I was starting to get the sense that it was a lost cause though. I could already see how tight the muscles in my hands were getting, in spite of the stretching routine.
I liked those stretching sessions though. I liked the way Jane’s long, thin fingers looked as they stretched and massaged the muscles of my legs. Even though I couldn’t feel it, sometimes I pretended I did. Sometimes I even pretended that Jane was a girl I was dating and this was some kind of weird foreplay. I didn’t see myself being so close and personal with a girl in a romantic way in the near future, so this fantasy was the closest I could get now.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” I asked Jane one day as she stretched out my hamstrings. She had my calf over her shoulder and my foot hung down limply.
“I’m in between boyfriends,” Jane replied, winking at me.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I’m sort of picky,” Jane said. “I’m not going to date a guy just because he’s got a penis. He has to meet all my qualifications.”
“What are your qualifications?”
“Oh, they’re not too stringent,” Jane said. “He’s got to be smart, at least as smart as me. He needs to be well read, college educated. He has to be kind and concerned with social issues. I’m not interested in vapid rich boys.”
“So are you saying you don’t want to date me?” I joked. It was supposed to be a joke, but what Jane was saying hurt my feelings a little. Not that I thought she might ever actually go out with me, but still.
“I wouldn’t have dated the old Nick Edwards,” she said. “But then again, the old Nick Edwards was too busy dating models.”
And actresses. But yeah, she was right. Jane wouldn’t have even been on my radar before my injury.
“So what do you look for in a woman?” Jane asked me. “Aside from the obvious physical attributes.”
It’s funny how little thought I had ever given to that question. I spent time thinking about small pert breasts versus large hooters, blondes versus brunettes, asses versus tits. I honestly couldn’t think of one personality attribute that I ever sought out in the opposite sex. Aside from “stupid.”
I couldn’t say that to Jane though—I had to come up with something a little more respectable. “I like a woman who’s strong,” I said.
“Strong as in muscles or strong as in emotional strength?” Jane asked. I got the sense she was mocking me a little.
“Both, I guess,” I said.
“Interesting,” Jane said. She put my leg back down on the bed and moved on to my fingers. She stretched them out as I watched. Dr. Greenly had told me in no uncertain terms that the chance of ever getting any sort of hand movement back was essentially zero. The best I could hope for was some upper arm strength, and the chances of that were dwindling each day.
“Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, does it?” I said.
I was having trouble saying it, but it was fairly obvious. I was not going to be doing any dating in the near future. Even with my powerful father, I just couldn’t imagine a woman being willing to date a high quadriplegic. I mean, what would I do on dates? Bring my mom along so she could feed me? Any date I’d go on would be really awkward. I just had to get used to the fact that I was going to be single for the rest of my life.
“Don’t tell me you’re worried you’ll never find a girlfriend again,” Jane said, smiling.
I blinked at her. “Is that funny?”
“It’s a little funny,” Jane said. “You always project this air of confidence. I’m shocked that you’re worried about something like that.” Her smile softened. “Anyway, you’ll find a girl again. I promise. It may not have this year, next year, or even in the next decade. But I promise, you will date again.”
“What if I don’t?” I said and my voice broke a little, which embarrassed me further. I liked that Jane thought I was confident. I didn’t want her to know how insecure I really felt right now.
“You will,” Jane said, and at that moment, she sounded confident enough for the both of us.