MELISSA: "Evan, sit down," I command, and he looks at me with his devilish grey eyes before plopping down so forcefully that at least a gallon of water sloshes out of the tub. "Dammit," I yell, and he and his brother grow quiet. Jesse's lip quivers.
"Mom's sorry, guys," I apologize. But I am sweating through my t-shirt, and my socks are soaking wet now, and I am bone-tired. If my yelling stopped the chaos, I am really not that sorry.
When the boys are out of the tub, I do my controlled cattle herd of them down the long hallway to their room at the end. Ahead of me, Jesse reaches the open master bedroom door we have to pass to get there, and pauses to stare in.
Jesse has gotten more curious about his dad's care as he's gotten older. Much to Gavin's chagrin.
I grab the handle of the master bedroom and quickly pull the door closed, catching only a glimpse of Rick doing Gavin's bowel program on the bed before the door clicks shut. Rick is a saint. At almost eighty-three, he drives to twenty minutes to our house each night to bathe and get Gavin in bed, while I do the same for our kids. I don't know how we'd do it without him.
"I wanna see," Jesse protests, but I place a firm hand on his shoulders and direct him to his room instead. In the room, Evan has pulled out a bin filled with puzzles and dumped it on the ground. So for the next fifteen minutes, I struggle to get both boys dressed and in bed and their room tidied enough to see the floor.
When I fall into bed beside Gavin that night, I kiss him on the check, sigh heavily, and say, "Some days I wish I were the paralyzed one."
GAVIN: "No, Jesse, don't-- Come on. Stop. Stop it." I turn my head and zip my lips, and the spoonful of wet oatmeal hits my cheek.
"Daddy," Jesse pouts. "You hafta eat."
"Mommy will feed me," I say.
"Why don't you just let him?" Melissa calls, from around the corner in the kitchen. She sounds like she's laughing, which is annoying.
"Meliss--" I protest, unamused. But opening my mouth is a mistake, because the moment I do, Jesse jams his spoon in so hard I'm worried he's chipped my tooth. I gag on the luke-warm semi-solid and for a second I'm worried I'm going to choke. With my diaphragm partially paralyzed, I can't cough for shit. But then the oatmeal goes down my esophagus instead of my trachea like I was worried about, and I yell, "Melissa!"
She swoops into the dining room and pulls Jesse off my lap, then sets him on the ground. But he immediately begins climbing back up my wheelchair. He loops his pudgy little hand fingers first into my seatbelt, then yanks on my chest strap to get onto my lap. It's his favorite spot, and no matter how obnoxious he can be once he's there, I cherish it. If I'll never be able to pick him up, or even hug him, this is his consolation prize.
"You okay?" Melissa asks, reaching with a napkin to dab off the oatmeal on my cheek.
"Yeah, I'm okay." Melissa goes back into the kitchen and returns with my toast a moment later. As she reaches to feed it to me, Jesse swipes it.
"Jesse," I growl. But instead of shoving it in my mouth, he holds it an inch from my lips and patiently waits. I glare over the toast at Melissa, who has her eyebrows raised at me. "You going to do something about this?" I ask, and she shrugs.
"I don't see what the big deal is," Melissa says.
"The big deal is, I don't want my three-year-old taking care of me."
"So I should do everything in the whole house? When you have a working set of arms sitting in your lap right now?" She stops and grins and she's really damn cute. "Just think of him like a helper monkey."
"I'm a monkey!" Jesse squeals, and I just shake my head. I know I'll never get out of this now. I reluctantly open my mouth and Jesse feeds me a bite of toast.
He grins like sunshine and I decide being fed by a preschooler isn't the worst thing that's ever happened to me.
MELISSA: I'm really nervous. I'm sweaty nervous. And it's not just about the dinner tonight. It's also about the fact that I'm trying hard to hold Gavin's body upright while he sits next to me in this swerving cab. That and the other thing. That Rob is likely in the city tonight, likely at the conference, and I do not want to run into him. So the honking and the lights of New York City aren't exciting at the moment; they're disorienting and foreboding.
We get to the restaurant in one piece, and Gavin's mostly still sitting up. I texted Faruq when we left the hotel, and sure enough, he breezes out the glass doors as soon as we pull up. He opens the door and says, "How can I help?"
I prop Gavin up, then enlist Faruq to run around to the back of the minivan with me and get Gavin's powerchair.
"Holy shit," he says. "That's heavy."
"Three hundred pounds."
"No wonder you're so buff. Okay," he takes a deep breath. "Let's do this."
I use the attendant controls to run the chair back to the side door, and I try to ignore the honking and the stares and the freezing cold air as we prep to get Gavin out of the taxi and into his wheelchair.
I line up his chair and grab him under the armpits like I've done a thousand times. But as I lift and step back, my heel catches the curb and I start to fall backwards. This is Gavin's worst fear about transferring like this, that I'll fall and he'll fall on top of me and hurt me. But just when I think we're going down for sure, I feel Faruq's strong hand on my lower back, buttressing me. For a long moment, I'm not sure if we're going down or staying up. Gavin hangs limply in my arms, but I know he must be freaking out inside. Wisely, he says nothing.
We don't fall. We don't get hurt. We get Gavin into his wheelchair. I sigh as I draw his chest strap snugly around his dress shirt. He looks at me, those same turquoise eyes, one of the few physical features that hasn't been affected by his disability.
"Well, that was an adventure," he murmurs. I chuckle and kiss his nose as I reach over to draw his sip and puff controls to his mouth.
"Melissa," Faruq says, and I look up.
Only it's not Faruq. It's Rob. I don't believe it. It's fucking Rob.
GAVIN: I can't figure out what's going on with this Rob guy. When I'm out to dinner with Melissa, and she's feeding me, usually I'm the one people stare at. All the other doctors at this table are staring at me. But if Rob has taken his eyes off Melissa for longer than two seconds all night, I'll eat my hat.
He wasn't even supposed to be here. But then, neither was I. When this pediatrics conference came up, Melissa had the crazy idea that we go together, to celebrate our anniversary in the city where we had our honeymoon. But though that trip was idyllic, this one has been less than. For instance the barely-accessible minivan-taxi. For instance the jam-packed sidewalks of midtown. For instance the running into an old colleague who's been undressing my wife with his eyes all night. In any case, Melissa doesn't seem to be reciprocating his attention. I try to tell myself that that's not weird. That the Melissa I used to know, the one who would've publicly told Mr. Eyeballs to shut it down, is just too tired and distracted.
And not that she knows why he's watching her. Or that she likes it.
"So, Rob," I say finally. "Are you married?"
Rob turns to me with big eyes. Melissa offers me a drink of water, which I don't take. She shoves it at me and I cock an eyebrow at her. What's her deal?
"No, thanks," I say to her. I look back at Rob. "Married?"
"About the same time you left Melissa's practice, right?"
He slowly nods. I turn to Melissa. "I'm not feeling so great. Can we get out of here?"
"Melissa," I say, low. "I want to go."
Damn it, I wish I could leave on my own. But aside from the practical reality that Melissa has shifted my mouth controls out of my reach while she assisted me with eating, what the hell would I do on my own in New York City? I can't open a goddamn door on my own, let alone hail a taxi, get back to the hotel, or get myself in bed.
Melissa dutifully brings my sip and puff straw to my mouth, and I suck sharply to reverse. But I bump a table leg that I didn't realize my knee was resting against when I do so, and my water glass topples into my lap. Melissa sops it with a napkin, and I look down in shame at my sodden pants. When I look back up, Rob is staring at me with pity writ large across his dark features.
MELISSA: The cab ride back to the hotel is quiet and awkward, just like our abrupt exit from dinner. I should be worried about what my boss thought, or my coworkers. But instead I'm wondering what my husband is thinking.
Does he know?
Does he know that, shortly before Gav and I decided to try IVF again, Rob and I started having an affair? It was so wrong. And it felt wrong. I'd only ever been with one guy besides Gavin, when I was sixteen. And then it was just Gavin, for years and years and years. And yes, things changed in the middle and that was so fucking hard, but we adjusted. And then I wanted something different. I wanted an able-bodied guy again.
So the first time, it was all my fantasies come to life.
I squeezed my eyes shut hard as I lay in the dark in the motel, and I let myself believe that the man with me was Gavin, miraculously healed and whole again. He ran his elegant hands down my sides, his fingers no longer atrophied and tight from disuse. He kissed all the parts of my body he wanted to, and not just the ones I presented to him. I didn't bump his catheter line, and I didn't worry about his bowels staining the sheets. His hard cock penetrated me so deeply from above that I gasped with the ecstasy, and I got to be a participant in a two-man show again, not the lone performer on a stage for an audience of one. We moved together--we moved! He and I. Both of us. I was delirious.
But at some point, you have to open your eyes again. And when I did, I saw my guilt reflected in Rob's eyes. Rob's eyes, which were muddy and unappealing in this new light. I almost sobbed with the wish that they were Gavin's clear blue ones. The ones that had loved me for a long, long time. And that I'd loved back.
We met up three more times after that, outside of work, for sex. Then I called it off, though I got no resistance on that from Rob. His marriage was in the crapper, but he didn't like being a cheater. I'm no idiot, and I know my way around a DSM-V. I know that I did what I did from grief. I mean, I know that now. At the time, I wasn't thinking. Back then, it felt like if I thought for too long about anything, I'd have screamed until my throat ruptured. Until I went insane. I just wanted my baby girl back.
But then Gavin's co-workers held a fundraiser. They raised enough to pay for another cycle of IVF and a new wheelchair. Their kindness buoyed us, and gave us hope again. We came back together. My belly swelled with womanliness. And suddenly I didn't need Rob anymore. I just needed Gavin, and our babies.
Don't get me wrong: It's been so incredibly hard. But I know Gavin is the one for me. I just hope I'm still the one for him.
GAVIN: The overhead lift in this accessible hotel room is a piece of shit. As Melissa lowers me into bed in it, I don't relax until I feel the pillow meet my shoulders.
We're quiet as she undresses me. What I'm thinking about is not how angry I should be, or hurt. What I'm thinking about is not that my wife almost definitely fucked the short guy across the table from us at dinner.
Mostly I'm just thinking what a selfish bastard I am.
Melissa is a stunning woman. Driven. Compassionate. Maternal. And a doctor, for chrissakes. She should not be married to a quadriplegic.
My pants are off, displaying the adult diaper I've been stuck in for the past eleven years. She switches out my small leg bag for a larger night bag, and disappears to the bathroom. My catheter tube is coiled upward, allowing me to see the fresh urine inching its way down the plastic tube and into the new bag. I don't even remember what it was like to have to take a piss. And I obviously don't know when I need to take a crap. Not that I could control it if I did know. Despite a diligent bowel routine, plenty of fiber, and a variety of medications over the last decade, I've remained incontinent. My doctors and nurses have coached me to just accept it, and I think I've done an excellent job of faking like I have. But I haven't. There's not really a way for a guy like me, who used to be so capable, to get used to his elderly father having to come over every evening and slip a finger into his rectum. Or a stranger he pays to do it. Or his wife.
Melissa comes back into the room smelling mildly of the bleach she had to stop at the drug store on the way into the city to buy. She's the one who has to pack for both of us, who has to do all the moving and lifting of not only me but all our luggage, who has to be the brawn of our operation 24/7. As she wriggles off my socks, I watch as my feet flop about. She told me once that my feet are soft now, like a baby's, which I guess makes sense, but bothers me nonetheless. My legs are no better, knobby and thin. I used to have great legs.
I used to have a great stomach, too. But not anymore. Not for a long time. My belly jiggles as Melissa unbuttons my shirt. Halfway up, she meets the blockage of my contracted arms. When they're strapped down to my armrests, they're fine. But within minutes of someone unstrapping me, they return to a curled position against my chest. All the ROMs in the world haven't changed this, and we're at the point of considering surgery. I don't know exactly what the surgery entails, but I'll never be able to move my arms again on my own, so whatever they have to do to get them to lie flat again is fine by me. As it is, Melissa has to fight with them now just to get my shirt off.
A few minutes later, I'm lying there almost naked, only my diaper on, and I remember how painful it was when we the boys were born. Melissa was enraptured by them, empowered by their life-force. Suddenly a Supermom, with a ridiculous amount of energy for a working mom of twins (and wife of a completely dependent quadriplegic), she cataloged every milestone. When Evan rolled over for the first time at thirteen weeks, I thought, but didn't say aloud, that now he'd overtaken me developmentally. The delight in Melissa's eyes at each new developmental breakthrough was matched by a dread behind mine that I hoped she never saw. Of course I wanted my boys to walk. But when they did, at ten months, I was left thinking that I was now the only member of our little family who couldn't. Who would never. And with the boys recently potty-trained, I was the only one in the family still dependent on diapers. Jesse had lobbied insistently to regularly feed me dinners at night, and I could see a future where one or both of my sons assisted in my care. It made me feel ill to think of it. I didn't want that, for me or for them.
I don't want this for Melissa either. I wish I could do something to make it up to her, to make her life easier. Like die. Or leave her. But I can't do either of those things tonight, so I say to her instead, "I want to have sex."
MELISSA: I should be scared. Why does Gavin want to have sex right now? Is this a weird trick to test my affection? If it is, I'll prove my love.
I strip out of my LBD and undergarments, less self-conscious than normal about my cesarean scar, or the stretch marks that radiate out from my belly button like a corona. I wish I'd had a chance to shower first, but I don't want to leave any room for doubt for Gavin tonight. I move to straddle his face, like normal, but he stops me.
"No," he says. "I want to have sex." I blink. Sex? As in penetration? Penis and vagina? Intercourse?
We haven't had that in a long time. I think back, and it might've been before the boys were born. Gavin and I both got tired of dealing with his accidents, so mostly his diaper just stays on when we "have sex" these days. Plus, sex hasn't gotten any easier, with his fleeting erections. And his total lack of sensation for all these years hasn't lowered his libido, so mostly he's just frustrated around the clock, and moreso when we're being intimate. To mitigate this, usually I just hop on him and he uses his mouth for ten or fifteen minutes until I cum. Then I brush his teeth, put his pajamas on, and kiss him goodnight. I know some nights he stays up long after I go to bed, sexually frustrated with nothing to do about it. But it doesn't help for me to talk him through it (I've tried), so I just leave him alone.
But tonight he wants to have sex. Okay. I hop up and grab a chuck from our medical supplies bag, then scoot it under his hips. I open his diaper and gently pull it out from under him. It's clean, so I set it aside to put back on him later. Then I find the cock ring that I've had stored in my toiletries bag forever and I begin to massage his penis. It doesn't take long to get hard. It never does. The trick is keeping it hard, which is what the wide lime-green band of silicone is for. I stretch it taut and slide the cock ring over his glans, all the way to the base of his penis.
Finally, I look up into his eyes. There's a silent plea there and I answer it by lifting myself and allowing him to penetrate me. I rock on top of him, running my hands up and down his chest in a way that he likes but cannot feel. I notice his erection fading already, but I'm not about to mention that. Instead, I lean over and press myself against him, clutching him as I thrust against him, in the position he used to make love to me in. His penis withers and I can feel it withdraw from inside me.
But he doesn't know that, and I don't tell him.
I hold onto him for dear life, and I feel something strange, an odd movement. I let go of him and pull back a few inches, and I realize he's working his shoulders up and down. He's trying to move his arms, I realize, trying to give me some modicum of pleasure as his few working muscles cause his contracted arms to move ever-so-slightly against the front of me.
A well breaks inside of me. He's trying. In a way he never has before, he's really trying. And I know he can't feel it or experience it the way I can, so the fact that he's doing it for me makes me want to cry.
And I do. And I'm not alone. He's crying, too.
And it doesn't make any sense to me, in the context of what happened tonight, but I think we're going to be okay.