On Saturday Afternoon
by Ruth Madison
This is a somewhat longer short story that I wrote back in college. Since then it has appeared in my short story collection, Dev Dreams and also in the collection Accessible Love Stories with other authors (I believe I'm the only one with a disabled male character in that collection, but I'd have to go back to check).
I'm working on more novels and longer works (including a series structured like a TV show), but in the meantime I hope you enjoy my shorter pieces! Come visit me at my website www.ruthmadison.com :)
(Because I have way too much fun creating mock up book covers!)
Em Matthews had a mother, a father, a roommate, and a boyfriend, but only one friend. His name was James. She met him at the hospital where she worked. Em volunteered doing odd jobs. Technically, she was an intern and there to get some contacts in the field she was studying. In practice, she swept a lot of floors.
She wasn't really sure that she wanted to go into physical therapy anyway. To her mother, going to college was just a distraction until Em got married. She thought this would be a good choice because Em would meet eligible men, but then her mother had found Kyle and that was that. James would not be what her mother considered an eligible man.
Em didn't pay any attention to him at first. She walked through the corridors of the hospital silently, keeping as close to the walls as she could, usually with her head down. She spoke to no one but her supervisor. Em had always been painfully shy, and she could barely get through the normal interactions expected of people at school and work. But James said hello to her as he passed in the hall. She was so startled that she didn't say anything back, but watched his back as he rolled down the corridor. Even though he was in a wheelchair, he didn't seem like a patient. It was a power chair, but still he had an ease with it that she hadn't seen in the many newly injured men and women who lived in this wing.
The next day she saw him again. This time she attempted a small smile in his direction and he smiled back, stopping his chair in front of her. Uh-oh. Now she would have to say something. She wasn't good with people; they scared and overwhelmed her.
She noticed immediately his adorable smile and his brown hair sticking up in all different directions very charmingly. He wore thin glasses and had a little stubble over his chin. His body seemed lumpy under his shirt and his hands were bent sharply at the wrists, the fingers pressed together. “I'm James,” he said. “I do speech therapy with the stroke patients.”
“Oh,” Em said, “I'm Em. I'm nothing really.”
He frowned. “What was that?” As usual, her voice was so soft that a person sitting two feet in front of her couldn't hear her. She tried again. “I just said I'm nothing important here.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” he said. “What did you say your name was?”
“Em?” She never noticed her rising intonation but her boyfriend, Kyle, teased her about it a lot.
“Is that short for something? Emma? Emily?”
Em looked down at her shoes as she said, “Ember.” People always laughed at her name because she was so unlike a fire.
“Suits you,” he said.
“You’re joking,” she said.
“No. I’m serious. You have fire in you, and isn’t that what an ember is? The potential for a fire?”
Em smiled a little. She liked that idea.
“Hang with me, kid,” James said. “We'll find your spark.” He grinned and Em felt warm inside.
The next week Em was rubbing Windex slowly across some glass doors that led out into a garden beside the rehab center. She was lost in thought, watching all the people sitting outside in wheelchairs. She wondered why she was always invisible. No one would notice her watching because she was like a ladybug: tiny, harmless, unnoticeable, and quiet. Throughout her life, her student report cards had listed her as “timid,” “meek,” and “shy.” The people here were supposedly worse off than she was in life, so why was she jealous of them and their forced companionship?
“Hello, Em,” she heard behind her. She turned and found James looking at her. She smiled.
“Want some help?” he continued.
“Okay,” she said softly, tucking her hair behind her ear.
He rolled near the glass door sideways and moved the arm closest to the door off its rest. It hovered shakily in the air until he got it pressed against the glass. Em reached over and put a paper towel between his hand and the door and he began moving it around.
The head nurse, Nancy, saw them and laughed. “Going to join our janitorial staff, Jim?” she asked.
“I’m keeping my options open,” he said cheerfully.
Nancy shook her head and walked on.
“Say,” James said, “I have a meeting to try to expand the budget, do you think I should go with a corporate look or boyish charm?”
No one ever asked Em's opinion. She didn't know what to say. After a few moments of pondering she ventured, “I think maybe it would be best to look as serious as you can—professional.”
She was surprised to see James actually considering her words. “Suit it is,” he said, looking up at her. He nodded toward the door and said, “Not bad, right?”
That was how it began. For the first time Em was involved in the life that happened around her. Jim brightened her workday. She swept the stroke patient's floors while James was there and listened to him work. The patients rarely even noticed she was there. James and Em took breaks together and went to the cafeteria. They sat outside in the garden and watched people, making guesses about their lives outside the hospital. They played scrabble together in the rec room when no one else was there, James knocking letters onto the table and telling Em where to arrange them. She kept trying to tell him she had a boyfriend, but somehow she could never manage to say it.
One night she got back from work to find her roommate, Julia, sprawled out on their couch with books and papers all around her.
“Hey.” Julia called out as Em dropped her key in a porcelain dish by the door.
Em smiled back and hung her coat up on a hook.
“Your mother called,” Julia said. “She said she’d try you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Em said. She had to write a paper tonight and she hadn’t had much time for schoolwork these days. The paper was due at the end of the week and she still didn’t know what the topic was going to be. She sat down at her computer at the desk next to her bed. But she didn’t see the blank white screen and the blinking black line—she saw James.
She loved his shaggy brown hair that looked soft, and his smile that always made Em smile back. There was a spark in his eyes that she had never seen anyone direct at her before. He laughed easily and he respected her opinion.
Without a word written on her paper, the doorbell rang; a moment later Julia called out, “Em! Kyle is here!”
Em hurriedly ran her fingers through her hair and smoothed it down before Kyle arrived at her doorway. She smiled and stood to walk over and kiss him lightly.
“Are you ready to go mini golfing?” he said.
“Oh, I forgot that was today.”
“You’ve been forgetting a lot lately, Em. I worked hard this week so we could go out mini golfing. I thought you’d be looking forward to this; I know how much you like it.”
“Yes, of course I do, let’s go and get my coat.”
It was true that mini-golf was Kyle and Em’s favorite thing to do together. One of the few fun things Em could do, Kyle sometimes joked. He said she was too serious and always focused on her schoolwork. Ember didn’t see herself as serious; she just had fun in more subdued ways. Em’s favorite thing to do was take a book, curl up on a big chair with rain rattling the window, open the cover, close her eyes, sniff the pages, and read for hours. Kyle only read for work.
“Why are you frowning like that, Em?” Kyle asked, “Putt-putt doesn’t take that much concentration.”
Em lifted her eyebrows and hit her orange ball. She missed, but it didn’t matter. Half the time she lost the game on purpose so Kyle wouldn’t sulk on the way home.
Em got home early that night, refusing Kyle’s offer of coffee after the game. She still had that paper to write.
The next day Em's mother called early enough in the morning that both girls were still at home. Em knew it was her and steeled herself for an unpleasant conversation. For the first twenty minutes, Em's mother listed all her neighbors and what they were up to, then all the people at church and all the news about them. Finally she said, “I can hear you biting your nails.”
Em looked down and saw that her hand was near her mouth. “I’m not,” she said.
“Don’t lie to your mother.”
“I should go—the hospital will be expecting me.”
“It’s cute that you have a job and all, but don’t let it distract you from more important things. I’ll be coming to visit in a few months and I expect to see your nails in good shape by then. Keep up with the manicures.”
“Yes, mother,” Em said. She looked down at her plain nails, which had been bitten down to the finger.
“Appearances matter. I don't know how many times I'm going to have to tell you that. Ask Kyle, he doesn't want a girl with stubby nails.”
So she did. That evening she called Kyle and asked what he thought of her mother's assertion that her nails were ruining all her prospects in life. “Yes,” Kyle said. “It's a problem. I thought you were working on it.”
“An unkempt appearance is unprofessional and unattractive.”
“I'm mostly kempt, though, aren't I?”
“It's the details that leave a lasting impression.”
Em didn't argue. She was tired of Kyle and her mother ganging up on her, though. She was tired of feeling ugly. At the hospital the next day she was still thinking about it.
“What’s wrong?” James asked.
Em looked down at her hands. “Do my nails bother you?”
Em nodded. She held them out to him so he could see her stubby short fingers and almost complete lack of nails. He leaned forward to look at them and suddenly Em felt acutely aware of some kind of electricity in the air around them. His skin was so very close to hers, his mouth inches from her fingertips. An unexpected urge rose in her to brush her hands up the sides of his face. She pulled her hands back abruptly.
“They look fine to me,” James said, raising his eyes to hers and twinkling in that way that he did.
Em coughed and made an excuse to get back to work. She almost tripped as she hurried out of the room. After she finished her chores, she started walking home in the dark night. Her arms tingled as she thought of his skin being so close to her. She saw his eyes in her mind and for some reason she turned around and walked back to the hospital. The still bright lights inside were a harsh contrast to the night outside. In the rehab wing, though, everything was dim.
Em hurried to the nurse's station and said, “Where is James?”
“What's that?” The nurse cupped her hand behind her ear.
“James? Do you know where he is?”
“Oh, I think his shift ended.”
Em hadn't noticed how high up her heart felt until it sunk back down. He'd be home already. The nurse continued, “He'll be in J wing.”
“Oh,” Em said. She wondered what he was doing there, but perhaps he had loose ends to tie up after work. She walked over to J wing, a residential hall, really more like a nursing home, affiliated with the hospital.
The hallways were empty and Em had no idea how to find him. Her voice was too soft to call for him. She kept a hand against one wall as she slowly walked from one end to the other, stopping abruptly at a painting hanging at the end of the hall. She crossed to the other side and began walking back the other way. What was she doing? Why wasn't she just going home? Her stomach clenched at the thought of returning to her little apartment, her schoolwork, her boyfriend. She kept pacing the hall until an attendant walked by.
“Excuse me?” Em said. She had to repeat it twice before the attendant noticed her. “Do you know where I can find James?”
The man pointed and said, “Room 304.”
Em followed where he had shown and gently pushed open the door, stepping into the room. There were two beds: an old man on one and James on the other. He was wearing blue pajamas and his wheelchair was empty beside him. He didn't see her right away, as he was looking over at the other man and gesturing his wrist at the basketball game on the television.
“Hi,” Em said softly. James turned his head to the door and his face dropped. She had never seen him look so serious. “What are you doing here?” he said.
She hated that he looked at her and seemed upset. “I don't know,” she whispered, “I just, I wanted to see you.”
“Now you see me,” he said and his voice was frighteningly still.
There was a question on her face that she was afraid to ask. He answered it anyway, “I live here. You're a PT student; you have to know that I need care.”
“I didn't think about it.”
“Well, now you know.”
Fear was racing up and down Em's veins and words were becoming jumbled in her head. She didn't know how to tell him that it was fine, that it didn't bother her to know that he lived in a nursing home. This wasn't her familiar James. She wanted him back.
He wasn't looking at her. Em also looked down and then she saw his bookshelf. Three small shelves beside his bed, packed two layers deep with paperback fantasy novels. She rushed forward and dropped to the floor between the bed and the wheelchair.
“I have this one,” she said, pressing her small hands against one of the spines. “And this one. And this one too.” She pulled one out. “I haven't read this one yet. Do you think I could borrow it?” She looked up at James, who was straining to see her from his position on the bed. He smiled and nodded.
Something on the television screen happened and the old man cheered, startling Em. She stood up and brushed off her skirt.
“This is my roommate, Gerald. He's 92,” James said.
“Nintey-two,” Gerald shouted, pointing at himself.
“Yes,” James said loudly, “I told her.”
Gerald returned to watching the screen. Em glanced over at Gerald and then looked back at James, feeling a melting in her chest seeing his ruffled hair. “Will you go to the garden with me?”
“Now? You're crazy.”
“Please,” Ember said.
“Can you get me onto my chair?”
Em nodded vigorously. “How?” she said.
He directed her to a transfer board, instructed her how to place it. “Come closer; let me get my arms over your neck.”
She bent her knees and leaned into him, but she was still unprepared for the dead weight of his body and he slid far too quickly to the edge of the wheelchair.
“Oh God,” James said.
“It's okay, we made it, we're good,” he said. “Just give me a little push to the back of the chair.”
“Hurrah!” Gerald cried from across the room.
James looked relieved to get the back of his hand against the wheelchair joystick. Em was also relieved for him to be back in control. She didn't want the responsibility.
Em poked her head around the door and made sure there was no one in the hall. Jim's wheelchair whirred behind her as she slipped down the corridor. The sound was very soothing.
The paths outside were smooth and wide, but James pulled ahead and directed his chair over the low grass and behind a group of shadowy trees. Em followed and stood shyly in front of him until finally she darted forward and kissed his lips. “Come and sit on my lap,” James said.
Em blushed, but she climbed onto his lap without a word. She lay her head back against his shoulder and felt the rough stubble from his jaw against her forehead. She matched her breath against the rise and fall of his chest behind her. “I've been wanting to do this for weeks,” James whispered in her ear.
As soon as he said it, Em knew she too had been wanting to do this almost from the first moment she met him. Nestled up against him felt so right, like he was a cocoon and she a caterpillar.
“Help me get down to the ground,” he said.
She stood up and he leaned against her. She tried to lower him slowly, but they both tumbled onto the grass. With the moon as the only light, Em untangled his feet from the wheelchair's footplate and straightened his body. Then she lay down beside him and touched the side of his face with the back of her hand. They were silent for a few minutes, enjoying the night air and crickets.
“I’m going to get fired for this,” Em whispered.
“No one has to know,” Jim murmured into her hair. He kissed her and she gave up protest. His fist was under her shirt, against her back, and her mouth was on his neck. He tried to pull her shirt off and she helped him. Then she pulled off his pajama top and threw it onto the empty wheelchair behind them. She straddled his body and her bra rested against his thin, bare chest. Her hands stretched across his shoulders and his neck. His fist ran down from her neck, between her breasts, over her stomach, and down one thigh.
“Have you ever done oral?” he asked.
“Um, no,” Em said. She didn't know what he was talking about, actually, so it was safe to assume she hadn't.
“I want you to take off your panties, then come up here and put your knees on either side of my face.”
“Do you trust me?”
“You're going to like this, I promise.”
He was right. The sensation was bigger than anything Em had ever experienced. It was like fireworks going off inside her. She caught her breath and had to remind herself to start breathing again.
Em was sweeping the floor. She glanced at Jim occasionally and felt her face turn red whenever she caught his eye. She started sweeping faster. Before he could say a word to her, she rushed out of the room to get her next assignment. Nancy was looking at her. Did she know? No, Em told herself, Nancy always looked at her when she gave her a job.
Nancy set Em up on the floor, behind the nurses’ station, sorting files. Absently she put folders away in alphabetical order and she wondered what was going to happen now. Em had a boyfriend; she couldn’t ignore that. How could she have cheated on him? She was such a good girl.
Why did Kyle have to be so dry? And always look past her into the distance when he talked? Em leaned her head back against the wall, flattening her ponytail, and remembered how good last night had felt. A giddy smile on her face, she wasted the last few minutes of her shift day dreaming.
Rather than go home, Em sat in Jim’s room waiting for him to come back. The room was empty. She saw dirt on the floor around the foot of Gerald's bed and had an urge to grab her broom and sweep it up. But she stayed where she was. The afternoon was drifting off into twilight. Watching the sprinklers on the lawn through the window, Em felt completely content; she finally had a place, she knew what she wanted.
She heard a noise and looked up. At the end of the room he was moving towards her. His fist pushed against his joystick, moving the wheelchair forward. She remembered the feel of his fingers; his fist like the knob on a door that wouldn’t open. A young nurse was walking beside him and they were talking. But he stopped speaking when he saw Em. Their eyes locked and she thought he seemed afraid of what she was going to say. She stood up as he arrived in front of her and his eyes looked up into hers. The young nurse walked away. Em smiled shyly and said, “I’ve had an idea.”
“Did you?” he said.
“I want to go out with you, on a proper date.”
“You’re not the type for a one-night stand, are you Ember?”
She crossed her arms protectively in front of her, feeling the soft fabric of her sweater under her fingers. “Is that what you wanted it to be?”
“No.” The one word came into her ears and flooded out her fear and anxiety. “Let’s go have an evening in the real world.”
Em picked up his hand and squeezed it briefly, then laid it back down on the armrest. They went to the check-out desk. Nancy was there, flipping through file folders. She leaned forward and looked down at Jim, her eyebrows rising.
“What’s going on?” she asked Em.
James answered. “We're going out.”
“Together?” Nancy said. “I don't think so.”
“Talk to Sheryl if you have a problem with it.”
Sheryl was Nancy’s boss, one of the older nurses in the rehab center. Nancy’s mouth stretched into a tight line. She didn’t seem to like having Jim question her authority. But she picked up the phone and paged Sheryl. Em didn’t see how that would help. Going to an older woman who knew more about the rules wouldn’t solve this problem, it seemed to her that Nancy was their best bet for sympathy. But when Sheryl arrived she immediately said it was fine. She smiled at Jim and patted his shoulder as she left.
Em walked out with Jim beside her. She smiled as she held the front door open and his dark eyes squinted in the sun. “That was easy,” Em commented.
“Sheryl is a friend of mine,” Jim said. “She was the nurse who was working the emergency room when I was first paralyzed.”
Em felt she couldn’t help her curiosity, “When was that?” Her face began to get red, she was afraid she was being tactless, but Jim didn’t seem to mind.
“Twenty years ago.”
“That’s my whole life. You must have been in the hospital at the same time that I was there being born.”
Jim changed the subject. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“Well, in walking distance, there's the mall.”
“Okay, let's do it.”
Em walked beside him, holding his left hand while he used his right hand for his wheelchair. She forced her little fingers around his limp hand.
The mall was as big and bright and overwhelming as she remembered. She hadn’t been here in years. James hit the handicapped symbol beside the door and it slowly swung open to let them in. They wandered down the main corridor, people rushing by on both sides. Em couldn’t help but notice that they all looked at her and James. All action and talking ceased as they went through, then continued behind them. He paid no attention to it, but Em turned her head and stared back at people. Somehow she hadn’t realized James would cause such a stir.
He cleared his throat and said, “Em, focus on us, okay?”
“Don’t apologize. I’m just trying to help you deal with it. I know you’ve never been the center of attention before, but this kind of reaction to me is inevitable.”
“Who knows? I guess I scare people. They don't like to think about people like me existing.”
“So it doesn’t bother you?”
“I was thirteen when I had my accident, so I'm pretty used to it.”
Em stopped walking and stood in front of him outside The Gap. “When people look at you they don’t see what I see, do they?”
Tears filled Em’s eyes, but she wasn’t sure why. Jim reached out and she leaned down to hug him. He kissed her cheek and said gently, “Hey, it’s okay. This is what you wanted, right? You said you want to have something real with me, a relationship, this is what it’s going to be like.”
She turned her head and kissed him directly on the lips. She didn’t stop, though she hated to be so visible. She pushed her tongue into his mouth and he didn’t resist. Em felt her purse fall off her shoulder, but ignored it. Jim moved his tongue with the strength and intensity his body lacked. She climbed onto his lap. One of his hands was touching the skin under her shirt along her waist. Eventually he pulled back and they looked into each other’s eyes for several seconds.
Then Em saw that her purse had spilled its contents along the corridor beside Jim. She hurriedly bent down and began shoving things back into it. The last thing was a stack of white business cards spread all across the floor. They were Kyle’s. Em hoped James didn’t notice.
They spent a while in the mall. Em tried on clothes and modeled them for James, she got them pretzels, and they watched the fountain for a long time. Jim finally admitted that he was getting tired and they went back to the hospital. Nancy saw to it that Jim went straight to bed, and she glared at Em until Em waved good-bye and walked home.
When she got home, Em went straight to her room and collapsed on her bed. While she was staring at the ceiling blankly, Julia peeked around the door.
“Are you okay, Em?” she said.
“No,” Em said. “I think I’m in love.”
“Why so miserable?” Julia came in the room and sat down on the bed by Em’s head.
“What I mean is I met someone. Someone other than Kyle. Is that terrible?”
“You have to follow your heart. You have to believe in love above all else,” Julia said with enthusiasm.
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“True love conquers all.”
“Em! Of course it does!”
“I’m going to work on homework, okay?”
Julia sighed and got up, leaving Em’s room rolling her eyes.
When Em woke up the next morning, the phone was ringing. She sighed and sleepily walked into the living room to pick it up.
“Hello, darling. It’s me.”
“I finally catch you! You’re a busy girl these days. I just wanted to see how you were doing—wading through college.”
“I like college, Mom.” She sat down on a stool and yawned.
“And Kyle? How is he?”
“He’s the same as always. He’s very predictable.”
“Oh, and you’re not?” Her mother laughed.
Em knew why she was predictable; she was terrified to go against expectations.
“Mom, what would you say if I told you I was going to have a wild romantic fling and run away with a man none of you have ever met?”
“I’d ask you what you had done with my daughter.”
“It could never happen?”
“Don’t live in a fantasy world, Em. I believed in my knight on a white horse too and I ended up divorced.”
“I wasn’t really picturing him riding a white horse,” Ember interjected, but her mother hadn’t heard her.
“—I wish my mother had warned me earlier that romantic ideals are just for stories, and for a real man you need someone stable with a good steady income.”
“Exactly, dear. I’m so proud of you, you know, Em. You never let your imagination offer you things real life can’t provide. I love how practical you are. Kyle is everything you could want. I never knew men like him when I was your age. If I had, things might have gone differently...Oh.” She jerked herself out of reverie, “And how is your job?”
“Fine,” Ember squeaked.
“I’m glad,” her mother said distantly.
Ember went to her classes that day, though she spent them scribbling absently in her notebook. That night Kyle called and asked Ember to go out to the new fancy restaurant in town the next day. He said he wanted to talk to her about something important. They didn’t usually talk about important things—just politics and movies. Ember was curious and, of course, she never denied Kyle a date. But as she agreed, Jim’s face was in her mind. Could she get rid of Kyle completely, without James ever finding out?
The restaurant stood out against the dark night in false gaiety. It was high off the ground with a wide staircase leading up to the bright doors. It looked like the houses set up on stilts at the beach. This house was raised up not to keep out floods, but to separate society from all the people it didn’t want to see. As they climbed up Em counted the steps. Forty.
At the top, Em asked Kyle to wait for the table. She walked around the outside balcony where people waited at metal tables to be seated inside. The night was dark. The lights in the rooms behind Em were so bright that the stars outside were dim.
She found the ramp around the back. There was a gate with a handicapped sign on it that would open onto the balcony. Ember tried the latch, but she couldn’t get the gate to open. She pulled on it as hard as she could, tried all different directions, but nothing worked. And then she looked at the path from that gate to the front door. There wasn’t a chance that James's wheelchair would be able to maneuver through all these tables and chairs. She looked down at the parking lot far below her and she felt like a traitor.
Kyle called for her and Em ran back to him. The main room was huge. Three stairs led down into it and the walls were long and wide. Tall windows along the walls looked out on nothing but darkness. High on the ceiling, crystal chandeliers provided the false brightness. People talked in low, refined voices and looked around themselves haughtily. Kyle held out the chair for Em to sit on. She looked at the menu. Kyle ordered them some wine.
“Em, put down your menu for a minute,” Kyle said.
“Yes?” Em said, laying it on the table beside her.
Across the room a woman’s laugh bubbled over her champagne.
Kyle took her hand from across the table.
“Look at me,” he said.
Em looked at him. There was a deep sincerity in his face that she didn’t see in him very often.
“I asked you to come here so I could ask you a very important question.” He held her hand tighter and said, “Ember Matthews, will you marry me?”
Suddenly Kyle had her full attention. “I...” she started, but she couldn’t get out another word. The house on stilts was suddenly swaying.
Kyle began to talk. He seemed to be giving her reasons why marriage was a practical decision. He probably used sweet words, but Em didn’t hear them. She could almost see James sitting outside in the dark looking up at the gay pretense. None of it was real. It never would be.
“Well?” Kyle said. “What do you say?”
“Could I have some time to think about it?” she asked timidly.
Kyle looked taken aback, but he said, “Of course.”
“We can meet on Saturday? I can tell you then?”
“Certainly,” he said.
The next day Ember stayed home from class and called in sick to work. She couldn’t in good conscience agree to marry Kyle while she was in love with another man. Kyle was just what she needed. Kyle was the only choice. No one could be as perfect for her as Kyle was, except that she felt passion with James. She decided that she had to spend the next few days trying to forget James and teaching herself to live without him. She called in sick for the rest of the week.
Every day it grew more and more painful, and Em became more and more afraid of that Saturday. Julia asked her what was wrong, but Em wouldn’t tell her anything.
Saturday morning Em couldn’t stand to be in the apartment waiting around for Kyle to show up that afternoon. She rushed out, not knowing where she was going. She wasn’t thinking anymore. Her mind would not be logical. Her feet led her straight to the hospital. She had to see James.
He wasn’t in his room. She checked everywhere she could think of. The wing where his patients were, the break room where they had played scrabble, the window they had cleaned together, and finally the garden.
She saw the back of his wheelchair. James was looking down at the ground where he and Ember had made love.
“James,” Ember said.
His chair struggled around in the confined space and he looked at her.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m okay, I guess,” Ember said.
“I was worried when they said you called in sick for the whole week.” James's face looked drawn. His cheeks were more sunken than the last time she saw him.
“Oh, James, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“What’s going on?”
“I, well, it’s just that, um, my mother,” Em struggled to say, “set me up with this guy a while ago. I never told you, but now… now. He asked me to marry him.”
“You have a boyfriend?” His face was unreadable—flat—he hadn’t moved.
“I should have told you,” she whispered miserably.
“Yeah. Yeah, you should have. You know, this meant something to me. What was it for you? Just something to pass the time?”
“No, no, it wasn’t like that. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
He didn’t answer.
“I’m sorry. I never wanted it to turn out this way. You’re the one I love.”
“That doesn’t do much good, though, does it? Love is great and all, but it doesn’t fix anything.”
“How can you be so cynical?”
“How can I not be?” His voice was hard and tight. “I live in a nursing home, Em.”
“Assisted living facility,” Em corrected.
“Nursing home,” James insisted, “Like my life is already over because no one has ever been able to love me enough. My parents abandoned me here. They figure as long as they help pay the bill, that counts as love. How dare you make me care about you? This whole thing doesn’t just affect you. You’ve messed with my life. You should have thought about that. I have feelings too.”
Em stayed quiet. He was right. She had been terribly selfish. She should never
have let this happen. Wasn’t love something you couldn’t control? Wasn’t that her excuse? She realized she was crying as she felt hot liquid tickling her chin. She reached out and picked up his hand, holding it against her cheek to catch the tears.
“I love you,” she said. “I don't know if it's enough, but it consumes me. You are the first person who ever saw me and let me be myself. I want you, I really do, I just don't know how.”
The door behind her opened and Em dropped his hand, where it landed on his thigh and stayed there. Em spun around, wiping tears off her cheeks with her sleeve. Kyle walked into the garden.
“There you are,” he said to Ember, ignoring James. “Julia said I could probably find you here.”
“Yes,” Ember said.
“Come on, Em, today’s the day you’re going to tell me you want to marry me.”
Ember looked back at James. He was looking at her steadily. She turned away, looked at Kyle, and swallowed hard.
She said, “I’m sorry, Kyle, but I’ve met someone else.”
“What are you talking about? Who?” he demanded. It never occurred to him that the man was sitting directly in front of him.
Em's voice was caught. She tried to say something, but no sound came out. James saw her floundering. “That would be me, you asshole,” he said, rolling forward.
“This is a joke,” Kyle said.
“You wish,” James said. “Now get out of here and leave Ember alone.”
“You’re making a big mistake, Em,” Kyle said, never looking at James.
“Just go,” she said.
“You would pick some limp dick cripple over me? Am I in bizzaro world?”
“Kyle!” Em knew he had a temper, but she'd never heard him say anything like this. “It's not true,” she added.
“Oh my God,” Kyle ranted, “You fucked him? That is too disgusting to believe. You make me sick, Em.”
Something snapped in Ember. Later James would say it was her spark finally catching fire. “I make you sick?” she said. “You with your pompous, arrogant talk and your dismissal of everything that makes me, me? You are pathetic and I'm sorry I ever met you.”
Two security guards appeared in the doorway, Em didn't know who had called for them. Kyle turned and saw them, looked back at Em, but didn't say anything. He walked away, shrugging off the guards.
Em was amazed by how light her heart felt as Kyle finally walked out of her life. Like she had been under one of those boards they used to kill women in the Salem trials, with rocks piled on top of her chest. One enormous boulder had been removed and she was surprised how much easier it was to breathe.
“Thanks,” she said to James.
“No,” he said, “that was all you. This is not going to be easy.”
“We’ll make it work.”
James smiled. He said, “Come give me a kiss.”