GAVIN: I have been paralyzed for exactly one year. Where're my cake and presents? Even though my actual birthday was months ago, this date feels more significant. On this date last year, I was born again into a new form, a new life, a new way of interacting with the world. I am nowhere near acceptance. But I'm noticing here and there a few things that used to be hard are getting easier.
For instance, I'm less self-conscious about my wheelchair. At first, I hated anyone from my old life to see me in it. I hated the way they watched me operating it with the chin controls that make it clear that no other part of my body works anymore. Pity, fear, discomfort: All of the things I saw in their eyes made me want to hide. Or curse them out. I actually did do the latter to a few of them. Trent and Allison and DeShawn have stuck it out and dished it back when I've deserved it. They are made of strong stuff.
The person who got the worst of it was Melissa, though. God, I regret so much.
As my dad gets me into bed tonight, he casually mentions that he ran into Melissa at the Piggly-Wiggly. I cannot imagine what she was doing there; she usually shops at Whole Foods, where she can get all the organic, whole-grain, non-GMO stuff we always preferred when we were together. It's weird that she was at the Piggly-Wiggly.
I decide I won't make anything of it.
MELISSA: I saw Rick at the grocery store yesterday. I was on my way to Kendall's party and had forgotten the wine on the kitchen counter of my apartment. That apartment is bad luck. I need to move.
But something holds me to the spot. On that day in May last year, Gavin and I were both paralyzed. Him, bodily. Me, emotionally. I can't move on. Gavin is unrecognizable; he is not the man I fell in love with in freshman biology. And I actually don't mean physically. I mean, of course his body, always so perfect before, has wasted and atrophied in all the inevitable ways. By the time we broke up two months ago, his body had completed the transition from looking essentially like a seated able-bodied man to looking every inch the severely disabled person he now is. But none of that mattered to me. His body was fine; I was attracted to him; I still wanted him in that animal way that set my clit to throbbing when I laid next to him at night. I don't know why or how. I don't know what to tell you. It mystified my sisters when I explained it.
Of course, he does not feel the same way about his new body. It repulses him. He could never quite believe I wasn't feeling the same way. But I wasn't. When I'd crawl into bed after my middle-of-the-night bathroom breaks, I'd masturbate to the thought of us together again. I didn't feel guilty; he'd made it clear that he wasn't interested in having sex trapped inside a body that didn't work anymore. And anyway, I'm so quiet there's no way he would have ever known.
Wait. His injury was May of last year. What's the date?
What do you do for someone on the anniversary of the worst day of their life? Is there a Hallmark card for that?
Maybe I'll call him. God, I miss him.
GAVIN: Jackie called today to finalize plans for my return to school next week. Three months ago, it would have been unfathomable to me. A lot has changed.
For one, I got tired of sitting around my parents' house feeling like a fucking loser.
Secondly, I started seeing a therapist and got on a kick-ass anti-depressant. I wasn't much of a pill guy before, preferring to treat minor bouts of depression with a couple weeks of long runs in the woods at daybreak. The sweat was a panacea. But I don't sweat anymore.
So I took my therapist's advice and got on an antidepressant. And while I was at it, I switched from suppositories to mini-enemas for my bowel program. I went from having to spend an hour in bed every morning, an attendant digitally stimulating my rectum, to doing it in 20 minutes once every other day. I still have accidents about once a week, so I guess the diapers aren't going anywhere any time soon, but I have no control over that.
Lastly, the school agreed to provide a student teacher to assist me during classes, and Trent volunteered to feed me at lunchtime and empty my leg bag throughout the day. With all that, I won't even need a PCA while I'm at work.
So that's it. I'm going to be a teacher again.
I am terrified.
MELISSA: It's that time of year. The office is overwhelmed by back-to-school physicals. I walk into an exam room and see a familiar face: Trevon Jackson, one of the track stars that Gavin used to coach. I'm not sure he'll recognize me.
"Whoa," he says. "Coach G's girlfriend."
"Hey. Trevon, right?" He nods. "How are you?"
I'm not sure if I should spill my relationship details to this seventeen-year-old kid. I do kind of feel like I'm lying by omission by not correcting him. But I'm taking my stethoscope from around my neck when he says something that shocks me.
"Tell him we're all real excited to see him again. I'm in his second period pre-calc class."
I drop my stethoscope.
Later that night, I'm sitting across the table from this gorgeous specimen of a man, this cardiologist with an accent and the grey eyes that I've always coveted on black men, and all I can think about is Gavin. Alistair is witty and kind and successful. But he's not my Gavin. I peck him chastely when we part just before ten o'clock. It's an early night; I've faked a headache. I nod rather than verbally affirm when he suggests we do this again sometime.
Alone in my (and Gavin's) apartment, I lie on my (our) bed in the dark and finger myself. Am I thinking about Alistair, this fantastic, successful, able-bodied man who's been pursuing me for two months? No, I'm thinking about an angry white guy strapped into a wheelchair, sitting on unresponsive legs, paralyzed arms strapped to the molded armrests. No one would understand this. Even Gav himself didn't.
I really should call him. But he probably hates me.
GAVIN: I've learned over the past year that, if one of my PCAs' cars is going to break down, or one of their kids is going to get sick, or if they are just going to up and quit, it will be at the absolute worst possible time.
So this is how my first day back at school goes:
Simone calls at 4:30AM, a half-hour before her shift is supposed to start, to inform me that her eight-year-old has spent the weekend puking. She's keeping him home from school and taking him to his pediatrician when their office opens. It's just as well that she's not coming; I really don't want whatever it is he has. I wonder briefly if Melissa is her pediatrician, but I don't ask.
So my 70-year-old retired father, who's already gotten up three times in the night to turn me, is awake at the crack of dawn to get me ready. He straps me into my shower chair and pushes me into the accessible stall they had built two years before I was paralyzed, when my mom's hips started acting up and put the fear of God into them about their second-story bedroom. I now have the master suite on the ground floor that they designed for themselves. How's that for fucked-up?
My dad bathes and shaves me, brushes my teeth and even does a passable job of styling my hair. He dresses me in clothes from before my injury. They're loose but it's just as well--tight clothes and quadriplegia don't mix. Thank God it's not a bowel program day.
He packs my bag: A lunch my mom made last night, a couple of mouthsticks, my laptop with all my voice software, my headset. He tries to pack an extra diaper and I argue him out of it, assuring him that I will drive my chair into the pool and drown myself before I let anyone change me at school. He slings the bag across the handles of my chair.
On the twenty-minute drive to school, I allow myself to ratchet into a full-blown panic: What if the students don't respect me anymore? What if my chair breaks down? What if my leg bag leaks or, worse, I go dysreflexic from a blocked catheter line or a pinched toe? What if it's awkward as all hell to let Trent feed me? What if I suck?
Basically, what if I discover I just can't do all this from a broken body?
By the time we pull up to Winslow Prep, the private academy where I was and am again employed as a math and science teacher, I feel ill.
First period is already underway, so the parking lot is blessedly quiet. I'll only be teaching two classes to start. Jackie suggested I get my feet wet first before I "dive back in." Those were her exact words. There was an awkward ten seconds of silence after that incredibly shitty metaphor.
Before I have a chance to worry if he forgot about me, Trent pushes through the front entrance and jogs over to the van. I try not to envy the easy grace of his movements, the toned muscles of his arms and chest, the control he exercises over a body fine-tuned like an Italian sports car...but I fail. Once the lift places me on solid ground, he claps me on the shoulder and gives me a look that makes me worried he's going to cry. He doesn't. I can see the tears standing in his eyes, but they don't fall. Good man.
"It's so great to have you back, Gav."
"It's great to be back." And what do you know--I actually mean it. My dad leaves and it's a little disconcerting to watch the only vehicle I can travel in drive away.
Trent and I make our way to the entrance and he lets me in. It's important that Trent has met me outside, since I don't do doors anymore. Can't, rather. My parents actually took most the doors in our house off the hinges after several incidences of my getting stuck in rooms when a breeze blew the door shut or I banged into one with my wheelchair and set it to closing accidentally. The outside world is not so accommodating.
Jackie stops in to bring me my student teacher, Meaghan Chin. She's a young, eager, chubby Chinese woman with a wide, dimpled smile. I would've towered over her in the days when I could stand. As it is now, we're basically at eye level. She talks a mile a minute, but she seems smart and kind. We'll most likely get along just fine. Trent takes off to finish a lesson plan, and Meaghan and I get to work.
She grabs my bag and begins unpacking it before I realize what she's doing, and I breathe a silent sigh of relief that I refused my dad's offer of an extra diaper. As she sets out my gear, I tell her about it. I also explain to her what I can and can't move, what I can and can't do, and how I landed in this situation. She listens without any detectable pity and her estimation in my eyes rises exponentially.
Class begins. I have decided a frank Q&A is most of what I'll get done today.
"What can you move?" It's Trevon Jackson, one of my old athletes, breaking the ice.
I shrug my shoulders and bobble my head in response. Others pipe up.
"What can you feel?"
I repeat the motion.
I watch the boys in particular shift in their seats in response to that. Having been a teenage boy once, I know what they're thinking: Poor fucker can't feel his dick.
"What's that for?" Blain Stoddard points at my chest, at the black mesh harness that clips in over my shoulders and under my armpits, and holds me upright in my chair.
"Keeps me from faceplanting onto my knees." Blain laughs and my wink lets him know that's okay.
"Were you born like this?"
A new kid in the front row is asking. The class quiets. They know the answer: "No."
"I was stabbed in the neck trying to break up a bar fight."
New Kid's eyes widen in shock. But the class around him titters. They know I'm lying and soon he realizes it too.
"No, but really," he prods.
"Really? I dove six-and-a-feet of body into three-and-a-half feet of water. I don't recommend it."
At lunch, Trent meets me in my classroom. I can't figure out how to politely dismiss Meaghan, so she ends up eating with us, too. I'm not thrilled about her watching Trent help me eat. Then again, anyone who looks at me can figure out I can't feed myself. If I could use my hands, they sure as shit wouldn't be strapped to my wheelchair. Anyway, Meaghan tells stories with her hands and after a while I'm not sorry she's hanging out with us. She's actually pretty funny.
Trent offers me bites of my sandwich in between bites of his and I sip at the straw of my CamelBak when I'm thirsty. I bought it for mountain biking years ago and I'm glad there wasn't a time traveler at REI that day to tap me on the shoulder and tell me that, before I turned thirty-five, I'd need it because I wouldn't be able to use my arms anymore.
When we're done eating, Trent and I discreetly excuse ourselves to the bathroom, where he follows me into the handicapped stall, lifts my pant leg, unstraps my leg bag, and empties it into the toilet.
My second class goes much the same way my first did. The kids have all the same questions. Predictable.
Trent walks me out between fifth and sixth periods, grabbing the doors for me. My dad picks me up.
I sleep better that night than I have in ages.
MELISSA: I ran into Gavin today. I can't believe it. I'm still shaking from the encounter.
At fucking Sears, of all places. I never go to fucking Sears. But I did today, to grab a wedding gift for my cousin who'd registered there.
On the escalator down to appliances, which I have to go through to get to the parking garage, I see a wheelchair. Wheelchairs always catch my eye these days, but I don't recognize this one. It's a narrow manual chair with a high back- and headrest, not the bulky powerchair that Gavin uses. But then I see the Brandman Racing sticker on the back. Brandman is the team that Trent races for, the team that Gavin used to race for. There cannot be two wheelchair users in this town with Brandman Racing stickers. Seeing Rick a few feet away, talking to a salesman about a lawn mower, confirms it. It's Gavin. My knees buckle and I almost trip getting off the escalator. What am I wearing? Lululemon workout pants and a hoodie from our alma mater. It'll have to do.
He doesn't see me as I approach from behind on rubbery legs. "Gavin."
I can see his head turn slightly, but he obviously can't pivot the chair to face me. Does he know it's me yet? Does he still recognize my voice? I come around the side of his chair and stand in front of him. He is very, very surprised. I guess he didn't recognize my voice after all. "Melissa," he breathes.
I smile and take him in. I ache. I am still so attracted to him. "Hi."
"What are you doing here?"
I tap the toaster under my arm. "Trishelle registered here. She's getting married next month."
He nods. "Tell her congrats from me."
We're quiet a moment until Rick sees me and comes over to say hi. He wraps me in a hug and over his shoulder I catch a shadow pass over Gavin's face. Is he angry that his dad is being so nice to me? Or that hugging a person he hasn't seen in a while is something he can't do anymore? Both? Neither? Toward the end of our relationship, I lost all ability to read what upset him. But most days it was everything, so it's not like it mattered.
We make some small talk: me, Gavin, Rick, and the confused Sears salesman. I mention to Gavin that Trevon was in the office and ask him if it's true: Is he back to work?
For the first time in the ten minutes we've been talking, he smiles genuinely. "Yeah, I am."
"It's going well?"
"Really well. I can't believe I waited so long. I mean, I'm only teaching two classes--pre-calc and physics--but I'll take on another class next semester and maybe another next year if things go okay."
"That's the plan." We pause. "What about you?"
"Same old, same old." I shrug. "Robinson retired," I say, referring to the older doctor who started the pediatric practice where I work.
I fiddle with the drawstrings of my sweatshirt as I look at his hands, resting in his lap. The armrests on this chair are narrow; there's no room for his arms on them. His hands are so still, thin, flat. His fingernails have become oddly pale against his naturally olive skin. And all I can think is that I want to grab his hands and kiss them and use them to bring myself to orgasm the way Gavin used to be able to use them.
I catch him catching me staring. "Is this your new chair?" I ask, to make conversation.
"Oh," Gavin says, looking embarrassed. "No, my powerchair's on the fritz. I'm stuck in this one until it gets fixed."
"That sucks," I offer, annoyed at myself that I brought up such an awkward topic. Rick clears his throat. "Your mom'll probably have dinner on the table soon," he says to Gavin. He smiles kindly at me.
"Right. Time to go," Gavin says. But do I catch the tiniest trace of reluctance in his eyes? I do. I think I do. Emboldened, I gather the courage to ask, "You want to have coffee sometime?"
I gather the courage. But I don't actually say it. I say, "Bye."
His dad grabs his chair handles and wheels him toward the exit. I watch him and I swear I hear my ovaries whimpering at his retreat.
I decide I'll call Alistair tonight.
GAVIN: Some days I could scream from pent-up sexual frustration.
Like now, in the shower, as Simone washes my hair. I'm staring down at my lap, where she has casually laid my hands over my dick. I stare at them, willing my right to move, to grab hold of my limp penis and make it hard. I often get erections in the shower; they are brief, nothing but a reflex triggered by touch. I get one today and I can feel a burning in my cheeks to go along with it. The burning cheeks thing is how I know I'm turned on these days. But my spinal cord is toast, so I know that what I'm seeing in my lap and what I'm feeling on my face are unrelated. The hard-on is due to the (highly unsexy) fact that someone is bathing me. The burning cheeks are because my mind has wandered to Melissa.
God, she looked good yesterday. I close my eyes and imagine her flawless ass, the mocha-colored skin taut and smooth. You could bounce a quarter off it. Her hair, chocolate corkscrews that smell like the coconut leave-in conditioner she works into it once a week. Her small, high breasts, nipples like Hershey's kisses. Her sweet breath on my neck as she begins to gasp and beg for release. The abs that ripple discernibly under my searching fingers as I drift down, down, down...My breath catches at the apex of my fantasy, and I open my eyes to see that my erection has vanished. My dick lies like a dead thing, plastered to the inside of my left thigh. But my cheeks are still burning like I've got a fever.
Like I said, some days I could scream.