MELISSA: Gavin and I are fighting. A lot. It seems like we can't get through a day without an argument. We moved back in together six months ago, got engaged three months later, and it has not been going well.
So, I'm sitting on my sister Alisha's bed and crying my eyes out while my brother-in-law wrangles my nephew in the living room.
"What are you guys arguing about?" Alisha asks, smoothing my hair and shushing me comfortingly as I lie in her lap.
"Us. The television shows we want to watch. How to pay the bills. Sex. Our jobs. Kids. The future. Politics. Religion. Everything. There's literally no topic you can mention that we haven't fought about."
"Oh, sweetheart," she murmurs, and I cry harder.
"It was never this hard between us. We used to get along so well. We were always on the same page."
She says the word that means everything in my and Gavin's life. Before. Before he broke his neck. Before we fell apart. Before life changed forever.
"Yes," I sigh. "Before."
"Are you happy?" she asks, and I start to say Of course! How could you ask that? But then I stop myself and really think about it. There's a part of me, way deep down, that worries that I spent so much time and energy trying to get Gavin back that, now that I have him, I'm not sure what to do. And I'm not sure I want him. That I want Gavin.
I can't even think the words. No, I won't go there. I do want Gavin. What kind of a person would I be if I didn't? Yes, things are different, but I can handle it. I am handling it.
GAVIN: I hate this. I really fucking hate this. Fuck you, Mike. You're fucking fired. You text me that you're sick, and then I see on Facebook that you're at a Twins game? I'm so incredibly tired of this. Most days, it feels like my life revolves around scheduling my care. Who's around to feed me dinner? Do I have someone to bathe and dress me in the morning? Sure hope Melissa gets back from the laundry room before this itch on my nose drives me completely batshit crazy. That kind of thing. Fuck my life.
I nudge the joystick under my chin and wheel to the living room, where Melissa is eating a Lean Cuisine and watching Grey's Anatomy. She doesn't look up, but I can see the tears still wet on her cheeks in the flickering light from the TV. I don't even totally remember how the fight started. But I do know that it ended with me calling her a controlling bitch.
Do you know how humiliating it is to have a huge fight with your fiancée, and then need to politely ask her to do your bowel program?
I clear my throat. She still doesn't acknowledge me, even though Ellen Pompeo's odd moon face has given way to a cat food commercial. Melissa stares at the screen. And we don't even have a cat.
"Sorry to bug you," I say, keeping my voice (I think) admirably even, "but Mike just texted me that he can't come tonight."
I watch Melissa's jaw harden. She heard me. She knows what I'm asking. What I need. And it occurs to me that, though I'm definitely the person who bears the brunt of the suckiness in this situation, it's no fun for Melissa either. What she wants to do is watch her show and ignore her asshole fiancé. But what she's going to have to do is get up and assist him with his most intimate physical process. Finally she turns to me.
"Can't you wait like fifteen minutes?" she says irritably.
I want to tell her to fuck off. That I'll find someone else. But my parents live a half-hour from here and I'm not asking Trent and a back-up PCA would take a couple hours to find. So instead of yelling at her, telling her that it's so completely uncool to make me wait knowing that my body is on a delicate schedule, that nobody makes her wait fifteen minutes when she has to go to the bathroom, I just swallow hard and say, "I'll be in the bedroom."
But I feel the all-too-familiar rage bubbling like lava just under my stony surface. It's always with me these days.
MELISSA: There's nothing like manually evacuating your fiancé's rectum to make you reconsider your relationship. Or hell, your whole damn life trajectory. As I slide my gloved finger into Gavin, careful because I know he can't feel it, I think about the eighteen-year-old me, with bad skin and questionable hair, sitting next to this Greek god of a boy. Gavin was tall and tan and so handsome I could hardly stand to look at him. I thought he'd see right through me, to the thoughts I had nearly every day in biology of taking off his clothes and licking him from head to toe. But he was nice, too. I thought I'd won the lottery when he finally asked me if I wanted to join him and DeShawn for a run after class one day.
And now here we are. What would eighteen-year-old me say if I passed her a note in class describing the scene I'm seeing right now? I shake my head and wipe Gavin's ass and wiggle the soiled chuck out from under him and bag it to take it out to the dumpster. On my way, I think about all we had and all we lost and all we are now.
I hate it when I have these thoughts. But it's happening more and more recently. Trishelle told me when Gavin and I decided to move back in together that she thought I was being too Pollyanna about Gavin's disability, that I hadn't fully thought out what I was getting myself into. Though I didn't say it outright, my response to her implied that I was just a better person than her. And now I'm even angrier at her, because I worry she's right. I mean, I'm contemplating a life with a man who can't even go to the bathroom on his own. And he's a jerk, to boot.
What the fuck am I thinking?
GAVIN: I fight to stay conscious as Melissa dials 911.
"Yes, I have an emergency. My fiancé is a quadriplegic and he's having a life-threatening episode of autonomic dysreflexia. His temperature is one-oh-six and he has a BP of two-hundred over one-twenty..."
The blackness falls over me like a heavy blanket as Melissa gives the EMS our address.
MELISSA: Whatever bullshit Gavin and I have been through in the last ten months, I realize as I sit at his bedside in the hospital, it means nothing in comparison to how much I love him. I know it's a cliché, but you don't realize how much you need someone until you (almost) lose them. And even now, as I listen to the ventilator breathing for Gavin like it did when he was in rehab years ago, I know there's no guarantee I won't lose him. That we won't lose him. His parents Rick and Daphne, his much-older sister Heather, our friends Trent and DeShawn, Allison and Chris, Pete and Larissa. Even his colleagues, like Meaghann and Pat and Serena. All of them are gathered in the waiting room.
I check my phone and stand up. It's time to turn Gavin. The nurses and doctors here are excellent, but they don't know how to care for a high quadriplegic like I do. They don't understand how crucial it is to adjust his body at regular intervals, even if he's unconscious. As I gently draw the sheet away, I get angry at just the sight of the cast on his right leg.
It's the reason we're in this ICU room right now. Two nights ago, Gavin and I had, as usual, been fighting, so I'd gone out for a girls' night and he'd called his new PCA, Tim, on short notice to come take care of him. Well, Tim was drunk, but he came anyway. And Gavin was too proud or ornery or embarrassed to call me and tell me he didn't feel safe with him. When Tim dropped him because he'd rigged the Hoyer sling wrong, Gavin's fragile tibia snapped.
Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach. My Gavin. Always breaking. How much can one human body be expected to take?
Unfortunately, since Gavin doesn't have any sensation below his shoulders, he had no idea that he'd fractured his leg. Not until an hour later, when he was lying in bed flushed and sweaty, BP rising meteorically. That's how I found him when I got home, with Tim passed out on the couch.
A nurse I don't recognize comes in as I stand staring at Gavin's leg. "Do you need anything?" she asks.
"I need to turn him," I say.
"I'll help you."
She comes to Gavin's bedside and I can see her surprise at his suprapubic catheter. She looks up at me questioningly. "Has he been here long?"
"Only since Tuesday," I say. She looks more confused. I know what she's wondering. "He's had the catheter for four and a half years though, since he became a quadriplegic."
"Oh," she says, then continues to help me roll Gavin onto his left side. She moves his vent tubing so we don't pinch it, and pulls his shoulder while I carefully shift his hips. When he's on his side, I place pillows all around him, including between his left leg and his casted right one. I consider the irony of a cast on a leg that will never again bear weight, but the bone needs to heal straight regardless.
GAVIN: I go home from the hospital today. It's been a month and I'm more than ready to leave. The AD attack was so severe I actually suffered a minor brain injury. I've recovered, but I had to learn how to talk and eat and control my wheelchair again. I'm still learning how to breathe on my own. Until I do, I have the hated ventilator. But I'd rather be home with a ventilator than stuck in the hospital until I'm off it, so it's coming with me.
At home, my dad bathes me. I haven't had a real shower since the day Tim dropped me and I feel grimy. The warm water and my dad's strong fingers on my scalp are soothing. He soaps up my chest, my armpits, my dick, my left leg. My right leg is encased in a plastic bag to keep my cast from getting wet. I still have to wear it for another few weeks. Remembering how insanely itchy the one I had on my arm in second grade was, I'm grateful I can't feel the leg. Even though my inability to feel my leg is what landed me in the hospital in the first place.
Out of the shower, in bed, my dad dries me off, diapers me, and dresses me in pajamas. He remembers how to disconnect the vent and suction my trach, which he does as I try not to panic at my sudden breathlessness. Thankfully, he's fast and my lungs fill with ventilated air as I hear the front door open and Melissa call out, "Gav? Rick?"
I have to wait to catch the ventilator's rhythm to make my response: "We're in the bedroom," I call weakly.
After my dad leaves, Melissa goes into the bathroom. I lie in bed, the only light in our bedroom what spills out from around the closed bathroom door. I listen to the ventilator that's keeping me alive. I hear Melissa drop something in the shower. I see headlights swing across our curtains. I wait patiently.
When she crawls into bed beside me thirty minutes later, I get a pang. I expected to smell the verbena twang of her herbal bodywash. I had forgotten that, with the air being drawn directly into my trachea, and bypassing my nose, I hardly smell anything when I'm on the vent. I feel so incredibly broken right now, inside and out. I tell her we need to talk. She turns me so we're lying in bed facing one another.
"I'm sorry," I begin.
"For being a huge asshole for way too long."
She sighs. I continue, "I wasn't prepared for how moving back in was going to bring up so much garbage."
"What do you mean?"
I take a forced pause. It's frustrating to have to talk around the vent. "I mean, I felt like I was going back in time. All the acceptance I worked so hard on for the last few years, it just flew right out the window when I got back here. I thought I'd moved on. But I obviously hadn't."
"I don't think you ever move on from this, Gav," she says softly, and I see her place her hand over mine in the moonlight. "And I'm not expecting you to."
I give her a funny look. "So I can keep being an asshole?" She breathes a small laugh. But then she's quiet for a minute.
"No. You can't be an asshole all the time. But I expect that you'll go through times that are easier and times that are harder. I don't think acceptance is a one-shot deal. I think it's something you'll be working through in cycles for the rest of your life." The ventilator fills my lungs three times before she adds, "The rest of our life."
It's a dagger. I grit my teeth. "Why are you here?" I ask, and my voice cracks with emotion.
"Because I love you."
"You shouldn't love me."
"Believe me, some days I wish I didn't."
"And I'm not just talking about your disability, though yeah--that's part of it. I mean, I didn't exactly grow up dreaming about my Knight in Shining Wheelchair."
I feel tears prick my eyes. It's true. "Melissa," I say, "you deserve so much more than me. And if you want to call us off, I think that wouldn't be the worst idea."
It's so abrupt I don't even realize Melissa has slapped me until I feel my cheek smarting. She's sitting up and glaring down at me.
“You bastard,” she says.
I know I’m a bastard. I’m just not sure exactly why it’s taken her so long to figure it out. And why she’s saying it now.
“You think you just get to dictate all the terms?” she demands, lighting my fuse.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I want to yell it, but it’s an impossibility on borrowed air. “I spend all day, every day, trapped in a body that doesn't work anymore. I dictate nothing."
"Damn it, I'm not talking about your body, Gavin! You act like you're the only person in this relationship."
"What are you talking about?"
"When's the last time you thought about what I want?"
Now I'm seeing red. "All I do all day and all night is think about what's best for you. And I'm ninety-nine percent sure it's not me."
"I didn't ask the last time you thought about what's best for me. I asked when the time you thought about what I wanted."
I'm baffled. She continues. "I don't need you to be my dad or my boss or my fucking conscience. I need you to be my husband. Because that's what I fucking want. And you don't ever seem to get that."
"You're right. I don't get that at all."
"Neither do I!" she explodes. "Don't think I don't sometimes wish it were some other way. I know married life with you will look different from what it could have been. Before. And our life will look different than Allison and Chris's and Trent and DeShawn's. I know there's a good chance we won't be able to have biological children. And that fatherhood for you, if we get there, will be painful at times. I know that motherhood will be a hell of a lot of work for me. I know that I'll have to clean the gutters and relight the pilot on the furnace and take out the trash. That I'll be doing all the driving, all the time. That my plans will be at the mercy of your caregivers'. I know that sex will always be complicated. I know that, that, that..."
She peters out and sits there, chest heaving though her eyes are dry. I finally ask, "Why would you want all that?"
"I've almost lost you three times, and each time, as I contemplate a future without you, it's unbearable. I'm not Melissa if I'm not with Gavin. It's just the way it is. I always felt like we were one brain in two heads. And now we share a body, too." As she says it, she slides close and extends her body along the length of mine. She clasps my hand and I watch her draw it to her lips. Then she slips her arm under the vent tubing and wraps it around me and I watch the muscles in her shoulder flex. She's squeezing me, hard.
"I don't get it. And I think you're crazy."
She releases me and props herself up on her elbow to look me in the eye. I hold her gaze for a solid ten seconds.
"But if you want me, you have me."