GAVIN: It's late spring, but it's unseasonably cold as shit at 7AM. I can see my breath rising in front of me in a cloud when I exhale, as I sit here in my wheelchair at the finish line, swaddled in blankets. Trent and DeShawn have dragged my ass out here, and the only reason I came is because it's a 5K fundraiser for wounded vets and I'm far from the only person here in a chair.
Pete, a buddy from rehab, sits beside me in his own. Of course, his is the "cool" kind, with a barely-there backrest and levered wheels. His girlfriend, Larissa, sits on his lap.
"How long do these things usually go?" Larissa asks, blowing into her cupped hands and shivering as the last of the runners disappears into the woods. Pete wraps his muscular arms around her.
I answer, "Trent and DeShawn'll be back in less than fifteen minutes. Allison won't be too far behind."
I'm right. At almost exactly the fifteen-minute mark, Trent and DeShawn explode from the trees, aimed at the finish line where we sit. They are twin rockets, and it's hard to tell who might pull ahead at the last minute and take the (largely symbolic) first-place trophy.
In the end, it's DeShawn. And in a spectacularly bold move, he then throws his arms around Trent and kisses him passionately. Of course, we knew that Trent and DeShawn were dating; we'd all conspired for years to get them together. But the sizable contingent of military-affiliated folks surrounding us are, as a general rule, assumed to be the homophobic type. The crowd hushes for a moment and then, just when it seems the same-sex PDA will go unremarked-upon, a gruffly anonymous voice calls low, "Faggots."
More runners are pounding through now, so Trent and DeShawn, stretching on the other side of the path, don't hear it. Pete, Larissa, and I do, though. For a moment, we three are frozen.
"Why don't you shut the fuck up, you intolerant prick? In case you hadn't noticed, this is a blue state. And, by the way, the guy who just gave his boyfriend a victory kiss is a decorated veteran and a patriot."
I flick the joystick under my chin and turn my wheelchair around with a mechanical whir. An ugly grunt stands toe-to-toe with Melissa, who glares down at him from her full six-foot height.
I don't know what I wish I could do more at this minute: Run to Melissa's side and clobber the guy, or jump up and down and cheer. Of course, I can't do much more than watch.
The guy backs down. He walks away muttering various insults aimed at Melissa's race and reproductive organs. But it's sour grapes and everyone watching knows the score.
Melissa Fucking Simpson.
For. The. Win.
I take as deep a breath as I'm able, and let out a whistle. Melissa turns to me and smiles. She doesn't look all that surprised to see me, which I guess means she's been standing behind us, knowing we were here, for a while. I don't exactly blend into a crowd, even this crowd. I'm the most disabled person here, as usual.
Melissa makes her way over to us amidst a gratifyingly loud round of applause.
I don't need to make introductions between Pete and Melissa. They remember each other quite well from rehab. I do, however, introduce Melissa and Larissa, who share a laugh over their rhyming names. As far as Larissa knows, and until the full run-down that I assume Pete will give her later, Melissa is "an old friend."
Trent and DeShawn make their way over. Trent slings his arm around Melissa.
"Where you been, kid? I miss you at these races."
DeShawn is more reserved. I have explained to him a million times that it was I who ended the relationship with Melissa, that I forced her out kicking and screaming. But he's loyal as a German Shepherd and can't seem to shake the feeling that Melissa abandoned me in my hour of need. He does manage a side-hug and a "how are you." I see the hurt on Melissa's face and I want to kick him.
Allison crosses the finish line, the first of the women, and jogs over to us. The guilty look on her face as she sees us all standing in a circle is evidence enough that she's the one who invited Melissa.
Which begs the question: Why?
MELISSA: I'm here, actually breathing the same air as Gav for the first time in forever.
Alistair and I were a trainwreck. I'd never had the type of relationship where the other person regularly flipped their fucking lid. He was inexcusably high-strung and I didn't have the patience to be careful when I sensed he was redlining. Now I know why he, a handsome, successful doctor, was still single at nearly forty years old.
Of course, I'm thirty-four.
And Gavin, freshly thirty-five, is single, too. Though he wears his reason on the outside.
GAVIN: At the restaurant where we all gather to grab a post-race brunch, I only feel a small stab of jealousy at the way that Pete is able to wheelie over the single step at the entrance. So that's progress.
Of course, I'm still relegated to meandering the property until we find a side entrance with no threshold. Which means I get to weave my way through the kitchen, getting stares galore. The stares don't stop once we're in the dining room proper. But I've gotten used to it over the past two years. I get it. I'm a spectacle.
As I drive to our table, I see that Pete has already removed the chair from the spot next to him. I pull up, bump the table, spill all our waters. Sigh. Park. Melissa sits next to me, smelling as always like coconut. A timid waitress walks up to our table, looking like she's been given a particularly galling dare. She looks everywhere but me and Pete, until she absolutely has to turn to us for our orders.
"What do you guys want?" Like we're conjoined twins or something. Nice.
I say, "Well, I'll have a Denver omelet, but I don't know what the other guy in a wheelchair wants."
Her face freezes, eyes wide, mouth a tight little knot. Melissa, former love of my life, snickers. Pete leans forward on one arm and says, "You're never going to believe this, but I was going to order the Denver omelet, too." Our table laughs; the waitress chuckles nervously.
When our plates arrive twenty minutes later, there's a three-way standoff. Pete is on my left, Melissa is on my right. Trent is just on the other side of Melissa. Who is going to feed me?
There's Trent, who's fed me lunch five days a week for the last nine months.
There's Pete, whom I met in rehab as part of a program there where they paired low paras with high quads. The idea was that the paras would regain a sense of usefulness (and gratitude at having been spared, I guess) by helping assist the more-severely-impaired quads. What the quads got out of it was personalized attention and a "buddy" to help with anything the nurses and therapists couldn't get to. Pete fed me many a meal.
And then, of course, there's Melissa. While she hadn't been my primary caregiver when we lived together during the disastrous last month of our relationship, she fed me a few times. It was not a pleasant experience for either of us, me stoney-faced and sharp-tongued, her weepy and fumbling.
"You want a hand with that?" asks Pete, grabbing my fork and pointing to my omelet.
"Sure, thanks," I say, grateful that he's offered and neatly cut the tension.
After brunch, we're all lingering in the parking lot. Suddenly, Allison gets an urgent text; her sister has some sort of emergency and she's got to leave immediately. She's a little vague on the details and we all stare after her, puzzled, as she jogs to her car.
Then Melissa gulps and mentions that Allison was her ride.
I try really, really hard not to get my hopes up. I offer casually, "Trent and I could run you home."
"Actually, why don't DeShawn and I ride together, since we're going to the same place? You and Melissa can go alone, yeah?" Trent says.
Everyone looks to me for an answer. They have thick skulls. "I can't drive," I say. "That puts two people who both need a ride into the same car."
Five more minutes of decision-making among adults who all hold post-graduate degrees, and we finally arrive at a plan. Trent will drive me and Melissa to drop her off, with DeShawn following. Then they'll drop me and my van at my place, and Trent will go on with DeShawn. God, the logistics of my life are exhausting.
It doesn't get me any alone time with Melissa, but it's better than nothing.
MELISSA: I didn't think about how awkward this was going to be, sitting in the back of Gavin's wheelchair van with him, on our way to the apartment we used to share before he got his wheelchair van. Before he needed a wheelchair van. Trent yaps about the race, trying to convince me into running competitively again. What he doesn't know is that, if Gavin can't run anymore, then I don't want to either. I mean, I run for fitness, sweating on the hated treadmill at the gym as a penance for continuing on in my able body while Gavin spends the rest of his life in a useless one. Running doesn't give me the joy that it gave me when Gav and I did it together. Like so many other things in my life, the thrill is gone without Gavin to share it with.
I ask Gavin about his school year. He tells me how wonderful it's been. He really means it; I can hear it in his voice. Then his eyes drop and he gets quiet. "I didn't think I'd ever enjoy anything again after...this." He juts his chin at his arms and legs, strapped down to his wheelchair. "I know it's a cliché, but I think I'm realizing life goes on." He looks up at me, and his eyes are full of unspoken words.
My heart twists in my chest.
When we are at the old place, I get out, hoping irrationally that Gavin will ask to come in, or Trent will offer to come back later and pick him up. God, the logistics are complicated. So we say our goodbyes and I step out. But I reach back into the van and squeeze Gavin's warm, limp hand. He watches me, his brow scrunched up, and I worry I've crossed a line.
Then he says, "You want to get coffee sometime?"
GAVIN: Tonight's the night and I'm nervous as fuck. Danny bustles around my room, gathering my clothes, as I lie on my bed wrapped in towels. Late shower today, because I've wanted to look and smell as good as possible when I meet Melissa tonight for our first date.
That's right. I'm going on a first date with the girl I almost married.
"These one, Mister Gavin?" Danny asks, in his accented English. He holds up a pair of dark designer jeans, a major splurge. But I told myself when I bought them that, since clothes last forever on me these days, I'll be wearing them until I'm in my eighties. I've had the foresight to have the back pockets removed by a tailor. Nobody sees my ass but my caregivers and seams on a numb backside are just pressure sores waiting to happen.
I nod to Danny. "And the blue sweater," I add. When Danny has gotten it all together, he comes over to my bedside.
He reaches over my head, to the cabinet where we keep the diapers, and grabs one. Danny works it up my thin legs, attaches a fresh leg bag to my catheter line, and then wriggles me into my jeans. He pulls my grey undershirt, and then my navy sweater, over my head. Then, he hooks me under the armpits and pulls me to a seated position. Supporting my slack upper body, he shimmies the shirt and sweater down my back. He lays me back down carefully, straightens my clothes, and holds up a mirror for my approval.
I take in the way my crumpled pants, fitted as they are, still don't hide the way my legs have atrophied to bony sticks. I see the sweater pull against the gut that I never had before I was paralyzed. My shoulders slope like an old barn roof. But my face? My face is good. Better than good, I'll allow myself to think it. My dark hair, damp from the shower, is thick and lends itself to easy styling. My nose is a Tom Cruise kind of nose, broken several times in sporting endeavors, but well-suited to my masculine face. My jaw is tapered, fine at the chin. And my turquoise eyes, always striking against my naturally olive complexion, are nice as they always were.
"I'm ready," I say, and Danny hoists me into my wheelchair.
MELISSA: "So, you said you're a teacher?" I ask.
"I am," Gavin says. "I teach math and science at Winslow Prep. Just started the new school year. What about you?"
"Physician. I'm in pediatrics."
We sit in silence a moment. I can see Danny about fifteen feet away, at a table by himself, reading a book.
"Aren't you going to ask?"
My eyes snap back to Gavin. I draw my brows together in a question.
"Aren't you going to ask how I ended up in a wheelchair?"
I feel nauseous. "Gavin."
He shakes his head. "Don't. The only way this works is if we start from scratch." He pauses. "So, do you want to know?"
I can't speak for a full twenty seconds. I also can't feel my fingertips. Gavin and I have been seeing one another on a friendly basis all summer. Coffee, mostly. Though I did have dinner at his house with his folks once. Platonically. Always platonically. Just when I was despairing that that's all he wanted from our renewed relationship, he asked me on this date tonight. But he called me earlier today to inform me it was a "first date." He wants to pretend, at least this first time, like we didn't know each other before. And this is the question I was dreading.
But I'll do anything for him. My pulse roars in my ears. "Okay. How did it happen?"
"It was two and a half years ago, on Memorial Day. I was at a big party at my buddy Mike's family's place on the lake. We were all goofing off, probably drinking more than we should have been. My girlfriend at the time suggested the guys have a diving contest. I went first. We didn't realized the drought had lowered the level of the lake so much."
My hands are shaking by the time he finishes the story. My napkin is in shreds. I whisper, "Do you blame her?"
The tears in his eyes match the ones I can feel filling my own. He smiles through them. Shakes his head.
"No. I never did."
The tears fall.