Recap of Chapter 3After reconnecting with his old friends and the sport he loves, Matthew also becomes an active participant at the rehabilitation center where he meets a young boy, Tim who is depressed. Spontaneously he decides to help.
I am sound asleep, when a big thump coming from the hallway suddenly wakes me up. It is followed by more banging and door slamming, much closer this time. Eight o’clock isn’t that early, but it is Saturday. I don’t have to go to the rehab center and I had a bad night because of my painful hip. The painkillers I wound up taking in the middle of the night left me groggy. I could have used a couple hours of extra sleep. I eventually get out of bed in a bad mood and go straight to the bathroom to cath. When I look in the mirror I huff in dismay. My face is as pale as a ghost, except for the scar which is reddish from sleeping on my cheek. I have dark circles under my eyes and my hair is as tousled as a scarecrow. In a nutshell, I look like a zombie and that is to be polite. I freshen up a little bit, and with my fingers I try unsuccessfully to untangle my rebellious locks. As I am making some coffee the irritating noise starts again.
Tabernac! Here is another one that comes spontaneously in my mind, especially when I am angry. The closest translation for this would be ‘for Christ’ sake’ in a moderate slang, ‘damn it’ in a more extreme way, but definitely ‘fuck’ as the ultimate curse. Right now the latter would fit best and I decide to go out to check what's going on.
The hallway is filled up with furniture on both sides. Someone is moving in and ‘this’ someone is just across my unit. The door is wide open and the figure of a woman in jeans is sweeping the floor with a lot of energy. Her back is turned and I can only guess she is young and slender. I knock angrily on the open door, “Hey! What’s all this mess? People are trying to sleep here! Don’t you know it’s Saturday morning?”
She turns around and when she sees me she freezes. Since I am in a wheelchair, needless to say I can have this effect on people most of the time. For once, I don’t see any pity or compassion, not even a hint of discomfort, just a bit of surprise maybe. She is looking right at me, sizing me up from head to toes. As I didn’t even bother to put shoes or socks on, I am talking literally. I can tell she insists on my legs and my wheelchair without even hiding it. She is curious, confident, but more likely…appreciative. Well, that’s my male proud talking here.
She seems lost in her thoughts for a few seconds. When she suddenly realizes she is still impolitely staring, she pulls herself together blushing, “Did the noise wake you up?”
From my sleepy eyes and my disheveled hair it isn’t hard to guess.
“Hmm…I thought my bedroom wall was collapsing.”
She gives me a sheepish smile. “I’m so sorry. I start a new job on Monday and I had to move in during the week end. As it is not permitted on Sundays, today was my only option. I put a note in the elevator and at the reception, but maybe a bit too late.”
She truly seems sorry and embarrassed.
“Well, I suppose it has to be done one day or another hasn’t it? I’m also sorry for the unfriendly welcoming but I had a bad night.”
I hold out a hand, “Matthew Vincent, your grumpy neighbor.”
She flashes a warm and frank smile at me and I feel an uncommon pang. I haven’t seen such a beautiful and sexy smile in a long time. To be exact, after my accident and the break-up with Melissa, I wasn’t ready or in the mood to pay attention to the womankind anytime soon. She takes my hand, “Cassandra Miller, your new and noisy neighbor, but everyone calls me Cassie.”
I smile, “Cassie it will be then.”
I am now wide awake and in a higher spirit. It is my turn to examine her. Medium height, I would say 5’6”, long silky brown hair, lighter than mine and much straighter, a very cute nose, pulpy sexy lips and the most amazing green eyes framed by long dark lashes. She is slim maybe a little too skinny. My mom and my sister’s cooking could arrange that. Now I am being delusional! I didn’t know her two minutes ago and I am already imagining her at my parents’ table. Who am I kidding? I am a cripple in a wheelchair being bound to look up to talk to people. Nonetheless, I feel comfortable with her, liking her casualness and innocent charm. I feel like starting a conversation, “Where do you work?”
“Close to the Millennium Park. I am a speech therapist for children. I answered an ad in the Chicago tribune and they hired me. It’s in a pediatrician’s office. They already have psychologists and they needed an extra therapist to help the other one who has a too busy schedule.”
She obviously feels like talking as well and with more details than I expected. It arouses my interest and helps me carry on my questioning, “Are you from Chicago?”
“Oh, no. I am originally from Florida but I had to move for…personal reasons.”
“Too many hurricanes?”
My ironic humor comes up short. Suddenly she looks troubled.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be nosy.”
“You are not. It’s just that I needed a change. I broke up with my boyfriend and it was not an easy thing to do. I am the one who took the decision.”
I think to myself, ah, one thing in common, both back to celibacy, but obviously not for the same reasons.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m not. I should have done it long ago. He was abusive and violent. I had to file a restraining order and he is still harassing me on the phone. Maybe I’m a coward, but I preferred to leave and start all over again in an another state.”
“Don’t say that. You don’t look like a weak person to me. It must have been creepy and I can understand you needed to escape from this stressful situation. You made the right move. Welcome to Chicago. I hope you’ll like it here.”
“I already do. It’s a beautiful city. So active and fast-paced compared to Miami.”
“Wait until winter, you might change your mind. You better be prepared for the cold. It’s going to be a thermal shock for you. I hope you brought warm clothes!”
Her sexy smile is back, much to my delight.
“Yes and I can’t wait to wear them. And now that I have a nice neighbor I can knock on his door if I need an extra sweater.”
Whoa! She is audacious now. She told me a lot about her in a short time and I seem to have earned her trust. I intend to answer in the same tone while I am interrupted by the movers who are back with another load. They want to enter the unit, but they are stuck by my wheelchair in the middle of the way, obviously embarrassed to ask me to move. I swiftly roll backwards to free the entrance.
Cassandra is serious again, “I’ll try to make sure they don’t make too much noise and I am sorry for the mess again. It shouldn’t be long now.”
“Don’t worry. I was being lazy this morning and I had to get up anyway. If you need anything that’s not involving lifting furniture, I’m right across. Call me.”
“Will do. Thanks.”
I am at my apartment’s door and I don’t know what gets into me, I turn around,
“When you’re all set, why don’t you come and have a cup of coffee with me. I’m sure you’ll need a break after unpacking all those boxes.”
She hesitates a few seconds. I guess she is susceptible to my charms, or maybe my wheelchair is making me harmless because she eventually agrees.
I wait all day with the impatience of a teenage boy. I check my emails, make a few calls, eat junk food in front of the TV and finally doze off on the sofa, sure she isn’t coming. She was just being polite and I was overestimating myself.
A soft knock on my door startles me. I try to transfer as fast as I can, but my not completely numb thigh starts cramping badly. I shout from the living room, “Come in, it’s open.”
I am glad to see it’s her. She enters and closes the door behind her.
“I hope it’s not too late. I’m not done completely but as you rightly assumed, I need a break. Those boxes are driving me crazy and I’m exhausted.”
“Yes, you really look tired. Come and have a seat. I’ll make some fresh coffee or something else if you want.”
“No, coffee is fine. Thank you.”
I am still seated on the edge of the sofa, but half way to my chair, shamefully waiting for the cramp to stop.
“Spasms or cramps?”
I am stunned. “Cramp. I stayed too long doing nothing, and I didn’t do my exercises today.”
“You mean your range of motion? You do them by yourself? Shouldn’t you have someone to help you, like a therapist, a roommate or…a girlfriend?”
Well, she is going straight to the point and she seems to know a lot about paraplegic issues. That’s very interesting. Instead of being embarrassed I am intrigued.
“I don’t have a roommate, I’m single and my therapist works in a rehab center. I go see him when I feel it’s time to go.”
“Like now for example?”
I feel a hint of sarcasm in her voice, but she also looks concerned.
“Yep, like now.”
I am doing my best to stay oblivious to pain but she figures it out.
“Stay where you are and rest, I can make coffee.”
“You’re the one who needs resting and I’m the one who invited you.”
And I’m glad you did. Can I?” She is pointing at the kitchen.
“Suit yourself. I’ll join you in a minute.”
I’m so pissed off. For the first time I have a chance to meet a beautiful and smart girl since my accident, and I can’t get my butt off the couch. What a bummer! She is already in the kitchen, filling out the coffee maker, while I am digging my fingers into my contracted leg. She watches over me discreetly while looking at some pictures on the bookshelves. Then she witnesses my lousy transfer, but thank God she doesn’t come to my rescue, neither does she make a comment. I am thinking how much different she is from Melissa. She doesn’t treat me like an impaired person and she doesn’t seem to be bothered by my wheelchair at all. For me it’s a first. At the beginning, even my close friends couldn’t help staring, looking, helping and feeling sorry for me. Soon after my release from rehab, some of them kept a close eye on me during transfers, or when climbing up or down a sidewalk. After showing them a dozen times it was safe and I was mastering my equipment, they felt relieved. I have a slick and sporty chair with no handles and no armrests, so I also had to tell people I hated to feel hands on my back or shoulders pushing me like I couldn’t use my arms. “I can manage by myself. I can even run guys, faster than you”, and I proved it.
No way I’ m going to seat back on the sofa, so we have our cup of coffee and some snacks on the kitchen counter. We are in front of each other smiling without talking, but the silence isn’t embarrassing at all. The apartment across mine had been unoccupied for a few years, since the building was built, and I am wondering if she is renting or owning it. This is an expensive place to live even as a tenant, but I am reluctant to ask her. I just hope secretly she’ll be there a while. I am appreciating her more and more, and at a fast pace.
She starts a conversation, “I saw some pictures of you on the bookshelf. So you were a hockey player and from the press clippings, a famous one. I feel bad I don’t know anything about this sport. I just know we have our own team in Florida called the Panthers.
I chuckled, “Yes, they suck, we beat them every year.”
“No they don’t!”
She is pretending to be offended but her funny pout and excessive frown show otherwise.
She is pretending to be offended but her funny pout and excessive frown show otherwise.
“I’m just kidding. They are not that bad. So you never watched a hockey game?”
“No, just basketball and you cannot say the Miami Heat suck.”
She is cute and witty and I like that.
“True. You’ve been champions twice in a row.”
Before realizing I just met her, I offer her spontaneously, “Would you like to come to a Black Hawks game sometime? I have VIP seats.”
“I bet you do and I’d love too...Were you injured during a game?”
“Yeah, a year ago, but it seems so much more when I think about it.”
If I don’t mind her inquiry about my injury, I feel suddenly gloomy for the time I lost far from the ice rink. She seems to read my mind,
“Yes. Time flies by so quickly. So you have some catching up to do and I’d be glad to do it with you. I’d be honored to discover this sport with a specialist.”
Even if I seem to have adapted to my new situation rather positively, nostalgic periods of the past pop up my mind without warning. I can’t let negative thoughts engulf me. Not now. Not in her presence. She looks so fragile and strong at the same time. The room is filled with only good vibes coming from her and weirdly enough, I find my kitchen very appealing all of a sudden. My new neighbor is adorable and I shyly smile at her. My down moment fades away as fast as it came. She seems to have more questions but doesn’t dare asking. I put her at ease,
“Shoot. What else do you want to know?”
“What is your level of injury? T12 incomplete?”
“You’re close, T10/T11 and yes, incomplete because I still have some sensations in my left side.”
“I could see from the painful cramp.”
“Was that obvious? I’m sorry; I hope it won’t scare you away. I don’t have them very often, but I do have a lot of spasticity and I chose not to take any medication to stop them. They make me too drowsy. I prefer to warn you just in case, because they can be impressive to see, but I can’t control them. I always pray it won’t happen in public.”
Normally I don’t like talking about my health issues especially with a stranger, but I don’t mind with Cassandra. As long as she is interested in me in any ways, I am willing to answer all questions to keep the conversation going on. She seems to agree with me because she is talkative too,
“Don’t worry about me. It will take much more than that to frighten me. You don’t have to hide your pain or discomfort from me. I studied about SCI injuries because the topic interests me and I like the medical field.”
“Well it’s good to know I have a neighbor and an attractive one, which is not afraid to look at me without being embarrassed or repelled.”
She blushes, “How could you repel someone? That’s a stupid thing to say. It’s surely not what I feel looking at you.”
She blushes, “How could you repel someone? That’s a stupid thing to say. It’s surely not what I feel looking at you.”
“Well, you obviously are not like everyone else and you are the exception. Don’t think I’m implying you are weird or anything. It’s just that I’m not used to have this kind of conversation with a person I just met. I appreciate you honesty and outspokenness and I feel at ease with you.”
“I can return the compliment and I feel safe with you.”
Is she referring to her ex? I don’t want to mention him again. It seems like taboo memories for her. I just appreciate her natural and revel in her company, “Well, thanks for your confidence.”
She gives me another of those entrancing smile, “What do you do now?”
“Not much. It took me a while to recover physically and mentally. I’m reviewing my options but for now none of them seems appealing to me. I started to help people like me in a rehab center, mostly children and I like it. I began with a little boy a few weeks ago and now all the therapists want me to work with them. It seems like I have better results with the psychological side of the patients, and it helps in the physical recovery process. I’m not saying that I replace the doctors’ work, but I can understand better what disabled people are going through, and they trust me.”
“It does sound a lot to me. You are underestimating yourself. That’s really amazing. It's a good and rewarding career move. You should be proud.”
“I am if I can help but it’s not always the case. There are really bad injuries and it also depends on the person’s state of mind and personality. Well, enough about me, let’s talk about you. Your career is also involving to heal people. You help them communicate better and correct their speech impairments. That’s rewarding too. It must not be easy.”
“Not always. I like working with children as well. They are willing to make progress and they think they are doing it for me. It's touching. I also work with adults who need to learn how to speak again after a stroke or a head injury. That is the toughest part of my job and a big challenge. I see a lot of wheelchairs and crutches in my field too.”
“Ah, that’s the reason why I didn’t shock you then.”
“Not really. I mean your wheelchair is a part of you and…and I think you look…sexy in it.”
Now I am speechless. Is she hitting on me? Is she really interested in me regardless of my wheels and all, or is it some kind of fetishism, a weird attraction to paraplegics. I read an article about it in a medical brochure and it was kind of scary, even sick. I am bewildered and somewhat disappointed. I don’t know how to react, but she seems to regret her daring comment and changes the subject,
“You have an amazing view on that side. I’m facing the city which is also nice to look at, but you can’t beat the sight of Lake Michigan. It feels like being on a ship because we can’t see down below.”
Trying not to think too much about her potential ulterior motives anymore, I tell her, “Let’s go on the balcony, you’ll see the shores and the harbor. I’m going to give you a tour of the East side of Chicago by night and from the sky.”
I head to the bay window and open the sliding door, but she hasn’t moved from her seat. She suddenly seems uncomfortable.
“Come, it’s really nice.”
“No, I trust you. I'd rather stay here.”
“Can you smell that breeze coming from the lake, it is so relaxing.”
I pop a wheelie to roll over the small level difference and I am on my wide balcony. While turning back to her, I hear a low and alarmed voice literally pleading,
“Matthew...please get back inside.”
“What are you afraid of? Do you think the balcony is not strong enough to hold me and my chair or… that I might jump?”
I have now my hands on the railing pretending to get up. I know it is a stupid joke, but I don’t expect the following reaction.
Her scream freezes me to death. She is standing in the middle of the living room gazing at me with wide open eyes. Her face is livid and she starts shivering. I roll back inside now concerned,
“Hey, I was joking. I’m sorry if I scared you, it wasn’t my intention.”
She isn’t talking, she is in shock. Then she starts crying silently still staring at the wide open window. I spin around and close it. When I turn back to her I sense she is going to collapse. In two spins I am by her side to prevent a fall, and collect her on my lap. She is weak, numb, and suddenly she bursts into tears.
“Hush, hush…please don’t cry. Nothing happened.”
I am whispering trying to calm her down, but she is really having a nervous breakdown and she needs to let it out. I just put a hand around her waist to hold her. She gradually sinks in my arms and lets her head drop on my shoulder. The crying becomes little silent sobs. She has lost all energy, but I feel her hands feebly searching for my back and clinging to it. I am afraid to move or talk. We stay motionless for a long time, and I even think she fell asleep. My back is crooked and I need to shift position. I stretch a little bit and she tightens her grip on me. In a low begging voice she sobs, “Please don’t let go, hold me.”
“I am not going anywhere. You can stay right where you are as long as you need.”
How could I leave her like that? I'm not that kind of guy. Is she even aware she is still seated on my lap? What a strange situation. This morning I was about to yell at a noisy neighbor and tonight she is all curled up against my chest, crying on my shoulder, and it doesn’t seem inappropriate to me at all. I am the one who caused the trouble and she needs comfort. It’s the least I can do. She obviously has a fear of heights, but I didn’t realize how serious it was until too late. I am sure of one thing: I will never open the widows again or go out on the balcony in her presence.
I caress her silky hair for a while and keep whispering in her ear, “I am sorry, forgive me, I didn’t know.”
When she is finally calmer, she stands up confused, “I'd better go home now. I feel so ashamed of myself. You must think I am crazy.”
She makes one step but she is dizzy and I have to hold her hand. I pull her back down on my lap and take her to the sofa.
“Sit here. You need a drink, something strong. I’ll let you go when I am sure you’re ok.”
She doesn’t protest and do as I say. I fill out a glass with whisky and wheel back to her. I hand her the beverage, “Drink this.”
She shots a glance at the brownish liquid with a frown, “I hate whisky.”
“Please drink it, straight.”
She looks at me shaking her head slightly.
“Cassie, I am serious. You’ll feel better.”
She dips her lips in the alcohol with a disgusted face and empties the glass in one shot. She coughs and gasping, she hands me the glass back.
I wait until the burning in her throat and stomach subsides. Then her eyes are sparkler and her face returns to a normal color. She is back to her old self again.
She nods, “Thank you. I suffer from Acrophobia since childhood. I witnessed a suicide when I was twelve. Someone in my building jumped from his balcony and I saw him fell.”
“That’s terrible.” I am appalled.
“Yes, and I have been in therapy for years, but I guess it didn’t do me any good.”
She looks detached, aloof.
“So why did you move on a 39th floor apartment then?”
“I thought I was cured but obviously I am not. My uncle is the architect of this sky-scraper. He always buys a couple of units from his developments and he lets me stay in this one for free. I only have to pay for the maintenance and my parents are helping until I get my first paychecks.”
I have the answer to my question, but I hope she has a good salary because the maintenance fees are worth a month rent, and I don’t want to see her leave.
“I’d better go now. It’s getting late and I have to finish what’s left of the boxes.”
As I am looking at her suspiciously she reassures me with a faint smile, “I’m good, I promise.”
“You know what? You’re going to promise me to go straight to bed, and I’ll come and help you unpack first thing in the morning. I only have to be at the Rehab center in the afternoon. Deal?”
She hesitates a few seconds but she finally agrees, “Ok. Thank you for being so nice.”
Then she surprisingly adds, “Could I come with you in the afternoon? I don’t feel like staying alone on my first free day.”
“Sure, with pleasure. I could use some company too.”