Why today? Why today, of all days?
If he could have, Michael would have pounded his fists in frustration. Instead, he just lay in bed, looking at the clock by his bedside, willing Dominic to arrive. He was no thirty minutes late, no call, no nothing.
Dominic had been his PCA for about a year now, and lately, Michael had started to almost hate him. He was tired of Dominic’s excuses, his frequent latenesses that resulted in Michael’s frequent latenesses. It wasn’t as if Michael expected his caregiver to act like he had the best job in the world, but Dominic had practically become surly in the last few months.
A quadriplegic with no movement in his hands and only very limited movement in his wrists, Michael needed help in the morning to get out of bed, to shower, and to get dressed. And today he needed to be prompt because he was meeting his girlfriend Amanda for a Sunday brunch at a diner by her house, where she was introducing him to her daughter Lexie.
Michael glanced over to the left of his bedside and saw his power wheelchair sitting there, taunting him. He didn’t have the arm strength to transfer into it himself, not by a long shot. Even though he’d been a quadriplegic for about ten years now and was mostly used to it, there were moments when he just got frustrated with it all. Most men wouldn’t be held captive in bed by a late attendant.
Michael glanced at the clock on his nightstand one last time, and confirmed that the glowing orange digits were moving forward. “Call Dominic,” he said loudly and clearly.
The phone by his bedside complied, dialing Dominic’s cell number. Not that it mattered. It was clear at this point that Dominic would not be answering.
Michael stared up at the ceiling, contemplating his options. Since he’d hired Dominic, he had pretty much memorized this ceiling. There was a crack right above his head that sort of looked like a turtle.
“Call Mom,” Michael finally said.
He hated to ask his parents to come here and help him. When he finally moved out three years ago and hired a bunch of attendants, the whole point was to spare them having to take care of him anymore. But they lived only twenty minutes away, and Michael appreciated the fact that in a pinch, they were there to help. After his accident, his mother had been his primary caregiver for almost seven years, so she was incredibly experienced with his body. More than he’d like to admit.
After a few rings, his mother picked up. “Mikey, are you okay?” she asked, always assuming the worst.
Michael turned his head so that the phone would pick up his voice. “Dominic is a no-show this morning.”
“Oh no!” his mother cried. “Aren’t you meeting Amanda for that brunch today?”
“Yeah,” he said. He took a deep breath. “I don’t suppose you could come over and help me get ready.”
“Well, of course,” she said. “But Mikey, you know we’re at church right now and that’s in the opposite direction. The soonest we could get there would probably be about 45 minutes.”
Michael did some mental calculations. It would take his mother 45 minutes to arrive, and after that, she’d have to get his Hoyer lift out of the closet, since Dominic didn’t usually use it for transfers. At this rate, he was guaranteed to be late for brunch with Amanda and Lexie. Of course, he could call and explain. But this was the first impression he was making on little Lexie and he wanted it to be a good one. He wanted to prove he was more reliable than Amanda’s asshole ex-husband.
He was about to resign himself to being late, when he heard the sound of the front door opening. “Dominic’s here,” he told his mother, breathing a sigh of relief. “I’ll call you later.”
“Okay, sweetheart, good luck!”
Michael closed his eyes, promising himself not to snap at Dominic. There was no point in doing that right now, but later today, he was going to call him and fire him. Right now, he had to focus on getting ready.
Dominic entered the room, his black hair mussed and his eyes bloodshot, smelling slightly of alcohol. “Hey, Mike,” he said.
Michael had to take deep breaths to keep himself from yelling at Dominic for showing up late to work on a Sunday morning, practically drunk. He knew getting angry would prevent him from making it to brunch on time, so he had to control himself. He tried to remind himself that he hadn’t been so different from Dominic when he was in his early twenties. He used to stay out late partying practically every night back then, bouncing from one job to another. Becoming a quadriplegic had forced him to mature fast.
“I’m meeting Amanda for brunch today,” Michael said. “I’ve got to get ready quickly.”
“All right, all right,” Dominic muttered. “You want a shower?”
“There’s no time,” Michael said. “Just get me dressed and into my chair.”
Michael had already selected today’s outfit in advance. He would be wearing a pair of dark brown slacks paired with a crisp white shirt. He had debated whether he should wear a tie, since he wore one to work every day, but then decided it might come off as stuffy. He worried a lot that he came off as stiff or stuffy.
Dominic held up the white shirt and sniffed. “This what you want to wear?”
“Seems pretty nerdy for a date,” Dominic said.
Michael eyed Dominic’s own outfit: a ripped undershirt and ratty blue jeans. “That’s all right,” Michael said.
Dominic proceeded to go about the business of getting Michael ready for his day. This involved emptying his catheter bag, which hung from the side of the bed during the night, and attaching an empty bag to his leg. After that, Dominic dressed him while in bed. After the last ten years, it now felt completely natural for another person to be dressing him.
Once he was in his wheelchair, Michael felt a rush of relief. It was so frustrating to be stuck in bed, but now that he was in his chair, he was mostly independent. Dominic helped him to wash up in the bathroom, but only because it was faster that way. He kept his hair very short, so it didn’t require anything in the way of combing or styling.
Dominic put Michael’s splints on hands so that he’d be able to eat more easily. Michael positioned his hand over the joystick on his wheelchair and moved it so that he could see himself in the full length mirror on his bathroom door.
It had taken Michael a long time to get used to his appearance since his accident. For the first couple of years, he had hated the way his disabled body looked. But now he was used to it, and could appreciate when an outfit looked good on him or something just didn’t work… or to correct things, such as his leg bag being visible. But since he was meeting Lexie, he couldn’t help but look at himself from the perspective of someone new, who hadn’t met a disabled person before. What would she think of his curled up hands in splints? What about the two thick Velcro straps across his chest that held him in his chair in spite of his lack of muscles in his torso?
Michael really wanted Lexie to like him. This was his third relationship since his accident and the most serious by far. The other two were sort of practice relationships, helping Michael to get more comfortable with his post-disability body in a sexual way. Amanda, however, was a girl he thought about marrying. He adored her in a way he’d never felt about a woman in his entire life. He had told Amanda he loved her a few months ago and she sounded like she meant it when she said it back. They were tentatively making plans for the future.
Their physical relationship was moving much more slowly, but it too was progressing. Last month, they took things to the next level—the bedroom. First she would just lie on his bed and he’d go down on her, which he loved. But last week they’d decided it was time for actual intercourse. Amanda came to his house and he’d had her wait outside his bedroom while his PCA got him undressed and into bed, and fed him a tablet of Viagra. He knew all the preparations weren’t particularly sexy, but Amanda had been wonderful about the whole thing. His body, crippled as it was, seemed to be acceptable to her, and she hadn’t commented about the suprapubic catheter coming out of his pelvis. They had managed to successfully have sex, and while they were lying in bed, smiling about it, Amanda said she was ready for him to meet Lexie.
Dominic got the wrapped present he’d prepared for Lexie and put it in his lap. “You look good, Mike,” Dominic said. “I’m sure the kid will love you.”
Michael looked up at Dominic and smiled. It was hard to stay angry at Dominic, who was essentially a good guy. He just wasn’t right for the PCA job. Michael hoped Dominic would understand that when they spoke tonight. In any case, he had more important things on his mind right now.
Amanda sat at the diner, wringing a paper napkin between her fingers. As usual, her nails were bitten down to the quick and she hadn’t bothered with a manicure in at least three years. Michael was now ten minutes late, which was unlike him and was only making her anxiety worse.
Amanda did a last minute survey of five year old Lexie. Lexie was wearing her favorite pink dress, which was embossed with a Hello Kitty logo on the front and a tutu skirt. Lately, it seemed like Lexie’s entire wardrobe was pink. She hadn’t meant to raise a child that was such a girly girl, one who insisted on applying pink lip gloss before they left the house that morning. When Amanda was that age, she’d been a tomboy and wouldn’t have been caught dead in pink.
Lexie had seized the salt and pepper shakers and was creating a concoction on the table in front of her. Amanda knew she should have put a stop to this, but she was too preoccupied, and she didn’t want to risk upsetting Lexie right before Michael arrived.
How would Lexie respond to Michael? Amanda had no idea. Even though she’d had a few boyfriends in the three years since her divorce, none of them had been serious enough relationships to warrant an introduction to Lexie. But even though she’d only been with Michael for six months, she felt like their relationship was very serious.
But Michael was so different from Brian, her ex-husband. Brian was tall, brawny, and loud—a bartender. Michael was the opposite of all those things. He was sweet, intelligent, and considerate. But she knew that Lexie would only see the wheelchair and the disability, because that was all Amanda herself saw when she first met Michael.
Amanda and Michael both worked at the same software company, in different divisions. She’d seen him around here and there—he was hard to miss. She always thought of him as the nice guy in the wheelchair, nothing more.
Then one day, a bunch of people from work ended up at a bar for Friday evening drinks. Amanda’s car was in the shop, and Paul in sales had offered to give her a ride home, but when 6:45 rolled around and it was time for Amanda to head out to relieve the babysitter, Paul seemed to be deep in conversation with a cute blonde.
“I’ll take you home,” Michael had offered. And she gratefully accepted.
Michael drove a large van with hand controls. During the drive to her house, conversation came easy. They chatted about work, movies, television, had a few laughs. When they pulled up to her front door, Amanda had smiled, “Thank you so much for the ride.”
“No problem.” And he smiled back. He had, in fact, a very cute, attractive smile. “Listen, Amanda, I was just wondering if you’d like to have dinner with me sometime.” She must have looked shocked, because he quickly added, “It’s okay if you don’t, no hard feelings. I just thought I’d ask.”
Amanda’s first instinct was to politely decline. Michael was a nice enough guy, but not the sort of man she was looking for in a boyfriend. But then she stopped herself. Why was she rejecting Michael? Because he was disabled? Was she the sort of woman who rejected a man just because of a disability? From everything she had heard about Michael, he was a great guy. So she pushed away her gut feelings and said, “That sounds nice.”
The beginning of their first date was cloaked in awkwardness. It was clear that Michael had made an effort to look nice for her and had even splashed on a little cologne. As much as she tried not to, Amanda’s eyes were drawn to his curled hands and his motionless body strapped to his wheelchair. When the hit the bump in the curbcut, his legs jiggled. Amanda worried that he was going to expect a kiss and wondered how she’d react.
But strangely enough, once they were seated at the restaurant, the awkwardness melted. Seated next to her, Michael didn’t seem so much different from any other guy. Also, he was actually pretty funny when he wanted to be. And, she had to admit, he was cute. He had the kind of boyish good looks that most women can’t resist.
Ironically, if not for his disability, Michael would have been far more desirable than she was. He was adorable, had a great job making good money, and he was even a few years younger than she was. Amanda was not unattractive, but she never felt she was terribly beautiful. She had muddy brown hair that could never hold a curl, a weak chin, and too small breasts. But Michael treated her like the most beautiful girl in the world.
Amanda glanced at her watch again. Fifteen minutes late. She craned her neck above the bustle of the diner, but Michael was nowhere in sight. Lexie had made a semi-circle of salt and pepper on the table and now was lowering her tongue downward to get a taste. “Lexie!” Amanda snapped.
“I’m so hungry!” Lexie whined.
Amanda was about to start yanking her hair out by the fistfuls when she noticed a commotion by the entrance: Michael. It was always a bit of an event when he entered a restaurant. Luckily, he seemed used to it by now.
Amanda stood up and started waving. Michael looked relieved when he caught site of her, and started making his way past them as fast as he dared. Amanda tried to get a table close to the entrance, but this was the best she could do. Michael only bumped into a few chairs on the way over.
“Lexie,” Amanda said to her daughter. “This is Michael.”
Even though she had warned Lexie that Michael would be in a wheelchair, the little girl’s eyes were saucers. She suddenly became very quiet and forgot all about licking the table.
“Michael, this is Lexie,” she added.
“Hi, Lexie,” Michael said cheerfully. He looked up at Amanda, “I am so sorry I’m late. Dominic was really late this morning.”
Dominic was one of Michael’s attendants. It was still a weird concept that her boyfriend needed other people to help him do basic things like get out of bed every morning. It was even weirder when he needed help to get into bed before they had sex. Amanda felt very self-conscious standing outside his bedroom, waiting for his caregiver to help him into bed and get him undressed. It was some sort of bizarre ménage a trois.
Michael had noticed her awkwardness when she had come into his bedroom. “I’m sorry it has to be this way,” he had murmured. “I know it’s not sexy.”
Maybe it wasn’t entirely sexy. But Michael was sexy. Something about it appealed to the dominatrix side of her that she hadn’t even known existed. After all, he could only lie there, his arms flailing a bit in an attempt to bring her close, and she got to decide what they were going to do. That was definitely a turn on.
“Lexie,” Michael said, fumbling with a box on his lap wrapped in pink. “I got you a present.”
Michael lifted the box using his wrists and just barely managed to get it onto the table. Lexie eyed the box, glancing back at Amanda to make sure it was all right. “Go ahead, sweetie,” Amanda said.
Lexie ripped off the wrapping paper as Michael watched, looking a little nervous. God bless him, it was clearly really important to him to make a good impression on her daughter. Fortunately, he had picked right: the blond-haired doll inside the box was a smash hit. Five minutes later, after Amanda undid all the little twists inside the box, she was cuddling her little doll.
“Pretty great present, huh?” Amanda said, nudging Lexie. “What do you say?”
“Thank you,” Lexie said obediently.
“Lexie looks just like you,” Michael said, watching Lexie cuddle her doll.
Amanda didn’t want to contradict him, even though Lexie was actually a spitting image of her ex-husband. Which was lucky for Lexie, she thought.
The three of them opened their menus to order. Amanda watched Michael slide his fingers between the pages and got the menu open on his third attempt. She had stopped noticing things like that, but now she was seeing all of Michael’s deficiencies fresh from her daughter’s eyes.
Lexie was studying the kids menu, which showed all the brunch items with drawings to go with them. “I want pancakes,” she announced.
“Just pancakes?” Michael asked.
Lexie looked at him questioningly.
“Well,” he said. “Pancakes are great. But the best thing about this diner is that they put things in the pancakes. Like you can get them with blueberries, bananas, chocolate chips…”
“Chocolate chips!” Lexie cried excitedly.
“You got it,” Michael said.
Ordinarily, Amanda would not have been thrilled about Lexie eating chocolate chips as part of her lunch, but she was willing to allow it if it meant that Michael and Lexie were bonding. This was going great so far.
Until Amanda saw her ex-husband walk into the restaurant.
For a moment, Amanda hoped maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe there was a Brian look-alike running around. That seemed more plausible than the person she least wanted to see in the whole world showing up during one of the most important moments in her new relationship.
And not just showing up. Showing up looking great. Brian was always a relatively good looking guy. Michael actually had the more handsome face of the two of them, but Brian had the rugged body with tight, hard biceps and a washboard abdomen. Amanda knew how hard Brian worked out to have a beach-ready body, and that included the spectacular tan that he was sporting. Michael, in comparison, was relatively pale-faced, and there was no trace of bulging muscles under his crisp white shirt. It wasn’t Michael’s fault, of course, but it was undeniable.
Worst of all, Brian wasn’t alone. He had his arm slung around an attractive blonde who was probably ten years younger than Amanda. And they were giggling like teenagers.
Amanda ducked her head down, praying that Brian would be seated far away from them and they could somehow escape from this situation without their paths crossing. But it wasn’t in the cards when Lexie shouted: “DADDY!”
Michael thought things were going well. Or at least, as well as they could have been under the circumstances. Amanda’s daughter Lexie was adorable. Cute little heart-shaped face, big brown eyes like Amanda’s, an endearing gap where she’d lost one of her front teeth. Michael realized that there was a chance that Lexie might be his stepdaughter one day and he really wanted her to like him.
Kids didn’t seem to be that bothered by his disability. Generally, kids stared at him, and if their parents didn’t drag them away, sometimes they asked questions. When Michael was first injured, the stares made him really uncomfortable, made him feel like a complete freak. But then gradually he got used to it, and even on some left, appreciated the open, honest questions that children would ask. Children were so much more capable of acceptance than adults. There were people Michael knew from work who still seemed uncomfortable around him, even after knowing him for years.
In any case, Michael had a good feeling about little Lexie. She seemed very willing to accept that he was her mother’s boyfriend, without an ounce of judgment on her part. Yes, things were going well.
Until Lexie yelled out, “DADDY!”
Michael immediately felt his heart sink in his chest. He looked over at Amanda, who was stark white. Clearly, Amanda’s ex-husband was in the diner, and from what she’d told Michael about him, Brian was the sort of guy who wouldn’t be able to help but come over and say hello. Amanda had been the one to end the marriage and there was still bad blood between the two of them.
Michael was almost overwhelmed by insecurity. He wished he could have been a good looking, able-bodied man who Amanda would have been proud to show off to her ex. He expected that Amanda would probably be embarrassed to be seen with him by Brian. He didn’t blame her.
A minute later, Amanda’s ex-husband was standing in front of their table, an amused expression on his smug face. Michael immediately disliked Brian, and decided he would have felt the same even if he hadn’t been previously married to his girlfriend. Brian seemed too confident, too cocky. It was clear all the stories Amanda had told him about Brian being an asshole hadn’t been exaggerated.
“Daddy!” Lexie squealed. Amanda had told Michael how much Lexie worshipped her dad. And how undeserved it was. Michael watched as Lexie wrapped her skinny arms around Brian’s waist as he patted her on the head like she was a frisky dog.
“Mandy,” Brian said, a smirk on his lips. “Fancy running into you here. And who is this young man?”
“That’s Michael,” Lexie said. “He’s Mommy’s boyfriend.”
“Is that so?” Brian looked incredibly amused. Michael sort of wanted to punch him, although these days, he didn’t have the arm strength to punch anyone.
“Yes, it is,” Amanda replied coolly.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Michael,” Brian said, holding out his hand for Michael to shake. “I’m Brian.”
Michael looked down at Brian’s hand, attached to a well muscled arm. The hand shaking situation was almost always awkward for Michael, who couldn’t shake hands in any real sense of the word. Finally, he reached out his splinted right hand and just grazed it against Brian’s palm. It was the best he could do.
It irked Michael that Brian simply seemed amused by his inability to shake hands. A broad grin broke out on Brian’s face. “Let me just say,” Brian said. “You two make an adorable couple.”
“Shut-up,” Amanda muttered under her breath.
Brian blinked innocently. “What is it? What did I say? I just think it’s nice you finally found a great guy, Mandy. Clearly, you’ve topped me.”
Amanda’s face was bright red and she seemed at a loss for words. This was the sort of situation where Michael ordinarily would have kept his mouth shut, but he couldn’t help himself. He loved Amanda. And he couldn’t let this asshole belittle what he had with her.
“It’s big of you to admit that,” Michael said. “I heard about all the times you cheated on her, even in her own bed. A wonderful woman like Amanda doesn’t deserve to be treated that way. I intend to treat her with respect and love.”
There was a long silence as Brian’s mouth dropped open. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” Michael said.
Brian’s face became very red. “Now, listen here…”
“Am I saying something incorrect?” Michael blinked. “You did cheat on her multiple times, right? She caught you, didn’t she? Or do you not think she deserves to be given love and respect?”
Brian’s cheeks were now nearly purple. “Who do you think you are? Do you really think Amanda could possibly like you? I mean, look at you.”
Before his injury, Michael would have had a great reply for a comment like that. He would have told Brian exactly where he could shove it and maybe even literally shoved him. But he couldn’t do any of that anymore. From his position at the table, he couldn’t even ram into Brian’s legs with his wheelchair.
Plus he didn’t want to admit that Brian touched a nerve. Sometimes he did wonder if it was possible that Amanda really had feelings for him. How could she? When he looked in the mirror, usually he saw just himself, Michael. But other days he saw a badly disabled man. How could Amanda be attracted to someone who looked like he did? Maybe she only wanted to be with him because she knew he’d be faithful to her, that he was “safe” compared to her ex-husband.
With all those thoughts swirling around in his head, Michael found himself speechless. He just stared at Brian, who grinned, smug in the certainly that he had won. Until Amanda’s voice broke the silence.
“Are you kidding me?” Amanda spoke up. She sounded genuinely incredulous. “Michael is a lot better looking than you, for starters. He doesn’t have weird flared nostrils and thin lips. And between you and me, he has a much nicer tongue that you do. Much, much nicer. Not that I’d really know much about your tongue.”
Brian’s face turned pink under his tan. Lexie, who was only peripherally following the conversation, said, “Daddy has weird nostrils! And an ugly tongue!” Then she started giggling.
Brian frowned and leaned over the table, looking Amanda in the eyes. “So this is really what you want, Mandy? This guy?”
“Absolutely,” Amanda said, without a twinge of uncertainty in her voice. “Also, please stop calling me Mandy. I’ve been asking you for eight years not to call me that. I hate that name.”
“I don’t like it either,” Michael added.
Brian straightened up, looking oddly uncomfortable. He looked between his ex-wife and his daughter, and there was defeat his eyes. Michael saw Amanda put her hand on his, and even though he couldn’t feel it, a good warm sensation filled his body. Amanda loved him. This little perfect family could be his someday.
“Enjoy your brunch,” Brian said. There was an unspoken “goodbye” in his words. Of course, it wasn’t like they’d never see Brian again, considering he was Lexie’s father. But Michael got the feeling that he wasn’t going to bother Amanda again.
“Bye, Daddy,” Lexie said as Brian wandered away without acknowledging her.
At that moment, their waitress arrived and plopped down a plate of chocolate chip pancakes in front of Lexie, whose eyes became saucers again. She grinned happily. “Mommy,” she said. “I like Michael.”
Amanda reached out and squeezed Michael’s arm. “So do I,” she said.