"Hi," Meaghan offered with a little wave, and held up the bottle of white she'd brought.
"Omar was supposed to tell you not to bring anything," she chided as she took the wine. Inspecting the label, she laughed. "Though since it's La Crema, I'm glad you didn't listen. Nice taste."
Meaghan followed Rhonda through the spacious living room, adorned with photos of her and Omar and their kids, two girls in high school and a boy who was away at college. Meaghan was privately laughing at a beach shot of the whole family in jeans and white collared shirts--an identical pose hung in her own family's living room--when she looked up and caught a man in a wheelchair staring at her from the threshold of the patio door. She stopped in her tracks as Rhonda nonchalantly made her way toward him. Seeing she couldn't scoot through the doors with him sitting there, Rhonda swatted him on the shoulder and scolded, "Move it, Cooper, you jamming up traffic."
When he didn't move, Rhonda followed his eyes to Meaghan's face.
"You're Cooper," Meaghan breathed, reeling hard mentally and trying desperately not to show it.
Rhonda frowned. "You two don't know each other?"
Cooper just stared. For a brief moment, Meaghan was stricken by wondering whether Cooper, who was obviously severely handicapped, was even capable of speaking aloud. In truth, Meaghan had never talked to him on the phone. Maybe he was like Stephen Hawking?
But then he swallowed hard and asked in a deep, pleasant--though strained--voice, "Meaghan?"
Rhonda interrupted, "Omar told me you two knew each other."
Cooper spoke to Rhonda without taking his eyes off Meaghan. "Only emails..." He trailed off, his eyes dropping to his body, which was strapped at the chest, waist and feet into a large electric wheelchair. Meaghan wasn't sure how he directed it, as it didn't look like he could move his hands. They lay perfectly still on large, molded armrests.
Meaghan felt a surge of pity for him. Not just for his physical condition, but that Omar had apparently ambushed him with her presence tonight. It suddenly made so much sense why he'd stopped emailing her after she'd invited him out rowing. She wished she could make an excuse and leave, and she momentarily considered doing so. But Omar came in at that moment.
"Meaghan," he bellowed. "Stop staring. It's just Cooper." He clapped Cooper on the shoulder, and Meaghan was relieved to see that it didn't seem to hurt Cooper, that he wasn't fragile. "He had a run-in with a semi-truck a couple years back, so now he gets to rock this cool ride." Omar motioned to the large black wheelchair like it was a prize on a game show. "He gets to skip out on dinner chores, too, so he can show you around while me and Rhonda get things set up outside."
Cooper shot him a desperate look, but he didn't acknowledge it. Instead, Omar grabbed a tight-lipped Rhonda and pulled her out the French doors. As they left, Meaghan heard Rhonda whisper fiercely, "How could you, O?"
And then it was just Cooper and Meaghan in the house. Cooper's mouth twisted to the side in a smile that didn't come close to reaching his eyes.
"So...this is the injury I mentioned."
This was, literally, Cooper's worst nightmare. Ever since he'd come home after his injury, he'd had dreams of meeting people this way. People who didn't know what had happened to him. People whose intense pity he could read like large-print all over their shocked faces. People like Meaghan Chin (who was definitely a lot prettier than Cooper had expected), who was standing still as a statue twenty feet from him.
As he felt the familiar shame descend onto his shoulders, he heard Kenny, his therapist's, voice in his ear: "Why should you be ashamed? This is who you are. It's not your fault. And disability has been a part of humanity since there was a humanity. You're simply an example of the diversity of our experience."
Cooper was feeling extremely diverse at the moment, watching Meaghan's eyes curiously scan his body, catching on his chest strap.
"I'm so sorry," she said quietly. She gestured vaguely with her hand, but Cooper got her drift. She wasn't sorry she hadn't recognized him, or that Omar had tricked him, or that she'd just been staring at him. She was just sorry. In general. For him. Ugh.
"Thanks," Cooper grimaced. He knew to accept this sentiment graciously, having learned from experience that responding critically or even joking back just extended the misery of the moment for both parties.
"Seems like everybody's outside," Meaghan said, looking anxiously past Cooper at the crowd gathering on the patio. Excellent. An out.
"Follow me," Cooper said, self-consciously mouthing his sip and puff controls. He hated how it looked to strangers, which was why he almost always insisted on using his manual chair in public. It stripped him of virtually all independence, since he obviously couldn't wheel himself in it. But it was easier and lighter for his caregivers to maneuver up steps and off curbs if the need arose, so they obliged him, even the ones who suspected the real reason. But since he hadn't realized he'd be on display in front of Meaghan tonight, he was in his powerchair.
In any event, he was grateful for the ability to get himself out of this awkward situation. He backed up through the door.
The atmosphere around the long, glass-topped table outside was decidedly un-awkward. Omar and Rhonda were their usual warm selves, and their daughters, Kelsey and Kieran, were funny and engaging. Even the woman who sat next to Cooper, who'd been introduced as his mother Julia, was outgoing and welcoming. The only two people who seemed uncomfortable were Meaghan and Cooper.
Meaghan had sat as far away from him as possible. Not because she was disgusted by him or anything--he was actually really cute, she noted in sly side glances--but because she honestly had no idea how to relate to him. Their email exchanges had been so easy, so fun, so flirtatious. Meaghan felt a little ill wondering how many times she'd said something accidentally inappropriate. Had she said she was "running late" or that she was "pulling his leg?" Was that rude? She had no idea. She'd never been around anyone...what was the proper term even? "Handicapped?" She vaguely remembered someone once telling her that word was offensive. So..."disabled?" "Differently abled?"
She snuck a look at Cooper, and caught his eye just as his mother lifted a bite to his mouth. Meaghan quickly averted her eyes once more. She'd been right in assuming he couldn't move his arms, as Julia had been feeding him the whole meal. How awful for him, Meaghan thought. She couldn't imagine being a grown adult and having to be fed like a baby. Well, she could imagine it actually, as she watched Cooper, and it made her stomach flutter with anxiety and sadness for him.
After an hour, everyone had finished their meal and was relaxing into conversation. So Meaghan took the opportunity to bolt.
"I'm so sorry," she apologized as she rose from the table. "I have to get going. I have a friend's birthday party tonight."
Everyone at the table turned to stare at her. She chewed her lip, seeing that she wasn't selling the lie. Then Rhonda stood.
"Sure, sugar. Let me walk you out."
Meaghan exhaled a tiny sigh of relief and waved. "Thanks, everyone, it was really great to meet you all," she commented, avoiding eye contact with Cooper.
Rhonda led her to the door, where she gave Meaghan and soft hug and--thankfully--didn't say anything more.
Meaghan walked to her car, got in, started it, and began to sob.
"Thanks for having us, Rhon."
Cooper bent his head into Rhonda's embrace, the closest he could get to returning hugs now.
Rhonda released him, but remained at his eye level, an intensity in her gaze. "Don't you let that get to you, Coop. Don't you do it."
Cooper didn't bother asking what Rhonda was referring to. He knew she meant Meaghan's hasty exit.
"All right, woman, get off. You're making him soft," Omar grumbled, playfully bumping Rhonda out of the way. He gave Cooper a hug, too, and this time Cooper leaned away. He was fuming. If he'd been able to, he would have shoved him off. Omar noticed. He stepped back and looked down at Cooper, something he--at 5'10"--was never able to do when Cooper was on his feet.
"That was low," Cooper said tightly.
Omar sighed and tucked his hands into the pockets of the work slacks he never seemed to change out of.
"Cooper," he started.
"I said, don't," Cooper warned. "You're just one more person who doesn't think I'm capable of running my own life."
"I don't think that," Omar argued.
"You do," Cooper rebutted. "What the hell was tonight about?"
"You asked me to tell her, bro," Omar shrugged helplessly.
"Not like that and you know it," Cooper growled. "Not to be surprised like that and gawked at all night. Not to have her see my mom feed me--" Cooper choked on the words just as Julia entered the foyer.
"Ready, Coop?" she asked brightly, carrying a tower of leftovers in brightly colored disposable plastic containers. "Got lunch for us for the next week," she said, lifting the precariously balanced stack for emphasis.
"Great," Cooper said through clenched teeth. He turned his chair and bumped out the front door, dinging the frame with his foot rest as he did so.
Julia, wisely, said nothing.
Cooper still hadn't fallen asleep by the time Danny came into his room for his first turn at 3AM.
"You're still up," Danny observed in the dim light from the nightlight, as he bent Cooper's right leg and laid it over his left, twisting his hips in preparation for the shift. Cooper was silent as Danny crossed his arm over his chest and then shoved with the necessary amount of force to land Cooper's lanky frame on its left side.
Cooper heard a disconcerting rustle and, after a moment, Danny spoke from over Cooper's shoulder. "Hey Cooper, I'm just gonna change you real quick. That okay, man?"
Cooper squeezed his eyes shut, knowing what Danny meant. "Fucking classic," Cooper muttered, gritting his teeth. Then, to Danny: "Sure, knock yourself out."
Danny reversed his earlier moves to roll Cooper back onto his back, where he'd have better access to the tabs that held Cooper's diaper shut. He gently tugged Cooper's pants down over his hips and off his ankles. Then he spread Cooper's legs and opened the diaper. Cooper watched Danny clean him up, an air of experience, professionalism, and compassion in the PCA's brisk movements. Cooper saw but could not feel when Danny lifted his penis to clean under it with baby wipes, and his thoughts went briefly to Meaghan. Not in a sexual way, of course. No, Cooper's thinking was more along the lines of, if she only knew what he was doing right at this moment. He'd seen her embarrassment when she'd watched Julia feeding him, and that was just the first act in Cooper's daily circus of indignities. If that freaked her out, knowing he shit his pants about once a week would probably cause her to have a stroke.
When Danny had finished, he fitted a fresh diaper onto Cooper and replaced his pants. Then he turned him once more and came over to the left side of Cooper's bed. He placed a pillow between his knees and another against his chest. Then he stood for a moment.
"You wanna talk about it?"
Cooper exhaled the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Have you had any other patients like me?"
"No," Danny answered. "I've only cared for two other high quads and they were both older."
"After his injury?"
Danny paused. "No," he finally answered. "Before." He crossed the room and, a moment later, came back into Cooper's field of vision, pulling the chair Julia sat in when she did Cooper's bowel program (which was less and less frequently, since Danny had come to work for Cooper). Danny, in fact, had agreed to stay over on Friday nights to turn Cooper so that Julia could get one uninterrupted night of sleep a week, which was why he started late on Fridays and was here now.
Danny sat in the chair so he was at Cooper's eye level...and waited.
"You're probably tired," Cooper tried.
"I'm okay," Danny replied...and waited some more.
Finally, Cooper spoke. "My boss--there's this girl--tonight--I..." He broke off in frustration. Danny didn't move or speak. Cooper started again. "There's this girl who works for my boss. And she and I had been emailing for like a month. Mostly work, but also just shooting the shit and stuff, you know?"
Danny nodded and smiled.
"Well, then she invited me out to go rowing with her brother--I used to row, you know."
"I've seen the trophies."
"Right. Well, it kinda shocked me because I assumed she knew about, knew...this." Cooper gestured with his chin at his paralyzed body. "Long story short, I didn't exactly lie, but I didn't get into the whole sad story. And then my boss invited me and my mom to dinner tonight. And this girl, too."
"And you didn't know?"
Danny pursed his lips thoughtfully. "And she didn't know."
"Well, she does now."
"How'd she take it?"
"Not good," Cooper replied. "She could hardly look at me and she left as soon as dinner was over. It was awful."
"That's rough," Danny affirmed.
"I didn't think anything was gonna happen with this girl. You know, I just liked talking to her. I know I'll never be able to be in a relationship again. It's just--"
"Wait," Danny stopped him. "Why do you say that?"
Cooper looked at him. "Don't give me this speech, Danny. Not you."
"The one where you tell me I still have a lot to offer."
"I don't," Cooper objected fiercely, trying to keep his voice down. Julia slept so lightly since his injury. "You just changed my fucking diaper. I can't do anything for myself. I'm totally dependent. I can't feed myself, can't bathe myself, can't put my own clothes on. I can't feel my dick. And I definitely can't have sex."
"You can't have sex?" Danny asked. Cooper stared at him.
"That's like High Quadriplegia 101, Dan."
"Bullshit," Danny replied. "Have you tried Viagra?"
"Yeah, I did. And I passed out from low blood pressure."
"Urinary tract infection."
"Would you want an erection you can't feel or do anything about that lasts thirty-six hours?"
"Okay," Danny said, leaning forward. "You ever try intracavernosal injections or vacuum pumps?"
Cooper was taken aback. "What and what?"
"Injections into your penis or a pump that makes you hard. There are intraurethral and topical meds, too."
"Oh." Cooper was embarrassed that he hadn't heard of those. In truth, he'd gotten discouraged after the oral medications hadn't worked and had stopped looking. That was about a year after his injury, when he was flying high on optimism after weaning off the vent his doctors had originally predicted he'd be dependent on for the rest of his life. He'd thought, hey, sky's the limit. Six months later, with zero return in the muscles of either biceps, he'd sunk into a deep depression. And finally taken a long, hard look at his life as it was, as it would be. He'd never have another romantic relationship, he knew. And he'd never again be able to masturbate. So what was the fucking point?
"What's the fucking point?" he said aloud.
"Well, I'm guessing at least some of your hesitation about having a relationship is worrying that you won't be able to perform sexually."
Cooper snorted derisively, "Perform. Right. Even if I get my dick to work, what can I do except lie there and hope all the pressure on my stomach doesn't make me crap the bed?"
"Maybe intercourse won't be your thing. Maybe you'll specialize in something else. Quads are pretty famous for their oral."
Cooper raised an eyebrow at Danny.
"Google it," Danny challenged. "I'm not blowing sunshine up your ass."
"How would that even work..." Cooper trailed off.
"Like I said, google it," Danny smirked.
Cooper almost smirked back, before he remembered there were still all the other things that went into having a functional relationship.
"So, what happens on my first date with this imaginary girl who's even interested enough to agree to it? I, what, ask her to feed me? Or better yet, how about I bring my mom? That way she can also empty my piss bag, hopefully right in the middle of dinner in an inaccessible restaurant."
"I'd go, and I'd mind my own business whenever you didn't need me."
"So you're gonna be on all our dates?"
"No. At some point, she's going to learn how to take care of you, and then you guys can do your own thing."
"She's gonna learn how to change my diaper," Cooper challenged sarcastically.
"I doubt a romantic partner will ever have to do that for you. That's what carers are here for." Danny reached over and patted Cooper's hand. "And Cooper--any girl who would have a problem with your diaper isn't gonna stick around long enough to find out about it."
Cooper was quiet for a long time. Eventually, Danny stood and lugged the chair back to the other side of the bed. He headed quietly to the door.
"So we're looking for a one-in-a-million girl then, huh?"
Danny turned and smiled, "You and every other straight man on the planet. I'll see ya in a couple hours."
And with that, he left.
It was two months later, as Cooper was finalizing last-minute details on a file he was closing, that the email landed in his inbox. He saw the sender and froze. Meaghan Chin. He hadn't heard from her since that night at Omar's, quite a feat considering they often dovetailed on assignments. Things with Omar had gotten back to normal pretty quickly. As furious as Cooper had been, Omar was like family. But he hadn't heard from Meaghan. It was a relief and a wound at the same time. Whatever Danny said, Meaghan was proof that no matter how smart and funny and likeable he was, his disability would always be a dealbreaker.
He clicked the email.
Hey, if you had the time, was wondering if you could help me on the Richards file? I'm stuck.
Administrative Support to Omar Benford
Benford Private Investigations
And then he responded.
Sure. What do you need?
And that was all it took.
"What's funny?" Omar demanded, leaning over Meaghan's desk and startling her. She looked up, eyes wide, at Omar's inquisitive face.
"Oh, it's just Cooper," Meaghan giggled. "It's about the Chermosky project. He just--nevermind, it's hard to explain. What do you need?"
"I need you to stop emailing Cooper and get to work," he said as he stalked back to his office. But he was smiling. And so was Meaghan as she turned back to her inbox.
The boss-man just caught me. He says I have to get back to work. :(
Administrative Support to Omar Benford
Benford Private Investigations
Yeah, he' s the worst, right? Rumor is I broke my neck on purpose just to get out of that office.
Meaghan snorted. She'd grown used to Cooper making morbid remarks like that. Four months ago, or even two, Meaghan would have hyperventilated at the idea of joking about such a tragedy. But she'd loosened up considerably and taken a cue from Cooper. After all, it was his tragedy. She'd decided to let him show her how to deal with it.
Just prior to leaving that night, Meaghan decided to do something she'd been wanting to do for awhile. Before she powered down her computer, she sent out one last email.
I've been wondering...do you drink coffee?
Administrative Support to Omar Benford
Benford Private Investigations
Danny turned at the red light to smile back at Cooper. "You good?"
"I'm fine," Cooper responded irritably. It was the third time Danny had asked. And of course he kept asking because Cooper wasn't acting fine. He was acting nervous. If he could have moved his feet, they would've been tapping. Lacking that outlet, the tension tended to build up in his neck, shoulders, and the crease between his eyebrows. He cleared his throat, and rolled his eyes when Danny checked on him in the rear-view mirror at the sound. "I'm fine," he reiterated.
Danny almost missed the entrance to the restaurant, and his over-correction caused him to take the corner sharper than he'd meant to. Cooper watched his right arm slip off the outer edge of the armrest and hang limply. He hated when it did that. It was an unwelcome reminder of how helpless he was, that he couldn't even stop his arm from falling off his wheelchair. When they parked and Danny opened the side door, he lifted Cooper's arm and placed it back on the armrest, using his fingers to extend Cooper's own as he settled them. "Ready?" Cooper nodded, swallowing. He wasn't really sure he was, but a session with Kenny earlier in the day had resolved him to do it anyway.
They entered the Italian restaurant, where they'd purposely arrived early, and gave their reservation to the maître d'. Cooper had chosen the restaurant on the recommendation of a low quad he'd met in rehab who'd assured him it was eminently accessible. Cooper could see from a cursory glance that he hadn't been wrong. The restaurant was large, with widely-spaced tables, the margins between them easily able to accommodate his wheelchair. And he could see a blue handicapped placard on the bathroom door straight ahead. After they'd confirmed their reservation, Danny pushed his chair (Cooper had insisted on his manual chair) to the bathroom.
Inside the bathroom, which was a single room, plenty big for the both of them to occupy comfortably, Danny emptied the small amount of urine in Cooper's leg bag. He'd emptied it before they'd left the house, but Cooper was taking no chances tonight. After months of revived flirting, and two successful coffee "get-togethers," he'd finally worked up the courage to ask Meaghan on a proper date. And, holy shit, she'd accepted. So springing a leak in an over-full leg bag--or worse, going dysreflexic from a backed-up catheter tube--was not on his list of activities for the evening. Last thing before they left the restroom, Danny undid Cooper's chest strap, hooked him under his armpits, and pulled him forward. He peeked down the back of Cooper's jeans, and Cooper sighed in relief when Danny confirmed that he was still clean and dry.
Danny pushed Cooper back into his chair and pulled the strap securely across his chest. He smiled at Cooper, who returned it, and said, "All right, let's make this happen."
Meaghan sat in her car in the parking lot, reapplying powder to her oil-prone forehead. She snagged the eyelash curler out of her glove compartment and reset her lashes. Then she applied a hint of concealor to her cheeks. Not enough to totally camouflage the freckles she'd been self-conscious about since she was in junior high, but hopefully enough to distract from them. One last touch of gloss to her lips, and she was ready to meet Cooper.
Standing in the entrance to the restaurant, it wasn't hard to find him. She just looked where everyone else was looking. It was a sure way to find Cooper in a crowd, better even than looking for the stand-out silhouette of his chair. She caught his eye across the restaurant and they shared a smile. Then she walked to him. As she arrived, she bent down and kissed Cooper on his cheek. He smelled of aftershave. When she rose, Danny, his PCA, quietly excused himself and moved to a table for one about fifteen feet from Meaghan and Cooper's. Meaghan silently blessed his consideration.
For a long moment, Meaghan and Cooper just sat, shyly smiling at one another. Then, looking around at the fine linens, classy waitstaff, and elegant furnishings of the restaurant, Meaghan commented, "What a dump."
Cooper laughed and their easy camaraderie unfurled between them once more.
Fifteen minutes later, their waiter stopped by their table for a third time to get their order. "Oh, sorry, we still haven't looked at the menu," Cooper apologized, and the waiter graciously promised to come back in five minutes. A long moment passed between them before Meaghan remembered that Cooper couldn't pick up the menu that sat in front of him. As familiar as she was becoming with him, she was actually pleased to find she sometimes completely forgot about his limitations. She reached out and touched a corner of his menu, raising her eyebrows. Cooper responded to her unspoken offer by quietly requesting, "Please." Then he looked over her shoulder and nodded, and she knew he was communicating with the ever-attentive Danny. She scooted her chair right up next to his, enjoying once more the scent of his understated aftershave. She remembered the feeling of his rough cheek against her smooth lips and for a moment felt her cheeks (and another, much more secret place on her body) grow warm.
She cleared her throat and opened the menu, but the angle was awkward. She longed to hook her arm over his where it rested on his armrest, but she wasn't sure if that was okay. She had kissed his cheek on two occasions now--at their last coffee date, and when she'd arrived tonight--but that had been the extent of their physical touch. She knew he couldn't move his body, but she wasn't sure if he could feel it. So the menu wobbled as her shoulder muscles strained to hold it out in front of him. He seemed to notice, and turned his face to her. Suddenly they were inches apart, closer than they'd ever been. Meaghan's eyes flitted to his mouth as he opened it.
"You can move my arm if it's in the way."
"Oh," said Meaghan. "Okay." She put down the menu and placed hesitant hands on the sleeve of his sweater, the same dark blue one that she recognized from that disastrous first night at the Benfords'. She glanced up in the direction of Danny, and he smiled, giving Meaghan confidence to proceed. She lifted Cooper's arm and placed it gently on his lap. Then she picked back up the menu and leaned comfortably across the now-vacated armrest. Cooper chose a ravioli, and Meaghan decided on spaghetti bolognese. Easy.
Cooper liked Meaghan. Like, really, really liked her. And it wasn't just her beauty, which was certainly compelling enough on its own. Her oval face was open and expressive, her teeth even and white. She had a fashionable straight-across bang, and Cooper found her surprising dash of freckles, unusual on an Asian woman, striking. But he liked the other things more. Like the fact that she talked with long-fingered and graceful hands, her face comically malleable when she was really engaged in telling a story. And that she was close to her family. And that she did a killer Omar impression.
She was in the middle of one such impression when their food arrived, and with it, Danny. As Danny pulled up the chair next to him, Cooper saw Meaghan's hand land on his arm. He looked up. She was chewing her lip.
"Would it be okay if I...fed you?" she asked.
"Um," Cooper hesitated. He looked at Danny, who sat with a completely neutral expression on his face, waiting for Cooper's decision. Cooper felt stuck, but only for a moment. He looked into Meaghan's sincere brown eyes and decided to take a chance. "You sure?"
"Totally," she nodded, her silky black hair whooshing back and forth appealingly, sending wafts of her herbal shampoo to his nose.
"All right," he ceded. Turning to Danny, he asked, "You mind?
"You're the boss," Danny replied pleasantly, and walked back to his table.
Needing to be fed by another person was one of the worst aspects of Cooper's disability. To say he hated it would be putting it mildly. Since it had been obvious from his first days in the hospital that his injury was going to be severe and permanent, his rehab had been geared realistically. There was rarely any talk of regaining physical capabilities, only of learning to cope with the few he'd been left with. Mostly, the focus had been on training Cooper to direct the people he'd be relying on for care for the rest of his life.
And yet, Cooper had hoped desperately for that one twitch in his biceps that would allow him to feed himself with the use of an adapted fork, a cuff and a sling. For months, he'd obsessed over it, always feeling he was on the brink of recapturing the ability. When it was obvious someone would have to feed him for the rest of his life, it was a harsh blow. He felt like he'd failed. He felt useless. He felt really, really disabled.
Adults who could feed themselves, which was most of them, never seemed to realize how vital a part food played in social interactions. Food at work, food at coffee, food at home. You didn't notice until you could no longer participate without assistance. And there was still nothing that could dash Cooper's good vibes like triumphantly closing a difficult work case, then having to turn around and ask his mom to feed him his lunch.
But somehow, with Meaghan that night, the reality of her helping him to eat faded away as their easy conversation continued. Meaghan didn't have to be reminded to offer him bites, but she also didn't abandon her own food as she fed him (something Julia was notorious for doing). And through it all, they continued to converse just as naturally as they'd done at coffee, and before that, online.
"So he's just not sure what he's gonna do now. I mean, he really expected that they were going to be bought. They all did."
"Hey," Cooper had an idea. "Why don't I call my brother about it?"
"What's he do?"
"Cameron does a lot of things. But mostly he owns a bunch of websites. And he's always looking for good software engineers."
"Really?" Meaghan breathed. "Doug would appreciate that so much. I would appreciate that so much."
"No prob," Cooper smiled.
Suddenly, Meaghan looked stricken. "What?" Cooper asked, concerned.
"We didn't cheers," she explained, her face melting into a smile. She took a wine glass in each hand and gently clanged them together. Then she offered the one with the straw in it to Cooper and brought her own to her mouth. "To a perfect first date," she said shyly.
"To a perfect first date," echoed Cooper.
"You got another text," Danny reported, leaning over to see Cooper's phone on the night stand. "Guess who from?"
"The Pope," Cooper said.
"Close. Meaghan," Danny laughed, continuing to do Cooper's range of motion exercises while Cooper lay in bed. "How's that going, by the way?"
Cooper snorted. "You've been on every date. You tell me."
"Yeah, five tables over. I don't hear what you guys talk about."
"We talk about work. We talk about family. We talk about anything that comes to mind."
"You guys talk about sex yet?"
"What?" Cooper choked.
"You heard me," Danny said, moving from Cooper's right leg to his left. Cooper was silent until he'd moved on to his arms.
"No," Cooper admitted. "Do I have to?"
"On whether or not you want to have sex with Meaghan."
The obvious answer would be yes, Cooper did want to have sex with Meaghan. But it was a complicated answer, too. Because what Cooper wanted more than anything was to have sex with Meaghan in his old body. The one he knew how to use to pleasure a woman. The one that he'd been confident was attractive. The one that could reliably get and hold an erection. And experience sensation. And have an orgasm.
He wasn't so sure he wanted to have sex in a body that didn't work anymore. Not with Meaghan, not with anyone. Most of the other guys he knew with SCIs couldn't wait to hit it after their injuries. Cooper was not among them. Of course, almost all of those guys had had lower injuries than his. They could use their hands, or at least their arms, and many had sensation of some kind even in the parts of their bodies that they could no longer move. Cooper, with his high, complete lesion, wasn't sure what sex would be like now. And though, sure, he'd fantasized about the idea plenty, the idea of actually attempting sex with Meaghan was incredibly daunting. And yet...
"I think I do," he finally answered.
"Then you should talk about it," Danny said simply.
Meaghan sat with her legs wrapped about the back of Cooper's chair. She'd raised the arm rests on his it to accommodate herself on Cooper's lap and she buried her hands in his soft brown hair, tugging gently as she probed his mouth with her tongue. He pushed back with his own tongue, and she moaned at the electricity that danced along her nerve endings when he did. She could feel his hands under her, radiating warmth through her underwear even though he couldn't move or feel them. Meaghan released his hair and, in the heat of passion, began to run her hands down his chest. He pulled back immediately, looking down to see where she was touching him. She froze. She knew this was a no-no, his stated preference being for her to stay where he could feel her touch. Unfortunately, this left her with precious little territory to explore, basically from his collar bones up.
"Hey," he chided playfully.
In response, she stood and walked the length of her bedroom, tugging down the hem of her skirt. She stopped at her window, looking down at Cooper's van, parked in a pool of streetlight three stories below. She'd driven it here tonight after picking Cooper up, leaving her own Camry parked outside his house. Danny wasn't down there; he hadn't been on any of their dates for months now.
"Are you okay?" he asked from behind her. She turned to him.
"Cooper," she said, walking quietly back to him and sitting on her bed to be at his eye level.
He looked at her with a deep sadness in his eyes. "I'm sorry..." He didn't continue. Not for the first time, Meaghan wondered how it felt to be totally paralyzed. Always a big hand-talker, she tried to imagine what it would be like to be unable even to shrug. She placed her hand on his.
"I can't even feel that."
"I know," Meaghan replied, confused. He'd told her on their second date that he could neither move nor feel anything from the neck down
"I can't feel that. I can't feel anything." He emphasized the word "anything," and Meaghan's eyes flicked instinctually to the crotch of his pants before she had a chance to catch them. But, again, she already knew that.
"I worry--I mean I haven't--not since I got hurt--" he stumbled. She knew he was trying to tell her he hadn't had sex since he'd become a quadriplegic. Something he hadn't explicitly spelled out, but which was pretty obvious from their conversations.
A dozen reassuring sentiments filled her mind, but instead of using any of them, she leaned in and kissed him on the mouth. At first, he silently protested, pulling back. But she pursued him all the way to the limit of his headrest, pressing her mouth against his, letting him feel her need, her desire. Finally, after two intense minutes, she detached. She caught his eyes with her own.
"I want to have sex with you. And I don't care what that looks like. I just want to be with you, Cooper Quince."
"Okay. One, two, three."
Danny grunted slightly as he slid Cooper's rear end across the transfer board until it landed on the bohemian pattern of Meaghan's Anthropologie comforter. Meaghan, standing beside Danny, asked "What can I do?"
"You can walk around and grab his legs. On my count, you lift them as I lift his upper body. Then you swing them up and onto the bed. Okay?"
Another count of three, and Cooper found himself sitting on his girlfriend's bed for the first time in nearly nine months of dating. Danny's arms around him braced him upright while Meaghan scurried to arrange her pillows behind him. When she was satisfied, Danny laid Cooper back against them. Disentangling, however, the pillows shifted, and Cooper began slowly tipping to his left.
"Whoa there," Danny said, grabbing him quickly and resettling him. When he was sure Cooper was secure, he stood up. "Okay," he said, wiping his hands on his jeans. "Let me know when you need me." Using the attendant controls, he wheeled Cooper's chair out of the room with him.
Meaghan followed Danny to her bedroom door, shutting it after him. Meaghan's roommate was out of town, so Danny would have the living room to himself for the next two hours. She turned to Cooper, who looked so different out of his chair. So very--...she caught herself before she could even think the word "normal." Thinking produced doing, she believed, and the last thing she wanted to do was to make Cooper feel like a freak. He was disabled, not a freak. Still, she couldn't stop the smile that crept onto her face as she saw her handsome boyfriend sitting on her bed, just like any other boyfriend. It had been a nice touch on Danny's part to take the chair with him. It was too loaded an object for this fragile moment.
She walked to the foot of her bed and stopped. She searched Cooper's serious face for an indication that he was okay. The desire that began to smolder in his eyes, and the twitch at the corners of his mouth, told her that he was.
She climbed onto the bed, crawling up to be next to him. She lifted his arm and snuggled into his warm side, drawing his arm back around herself. Her heart ached as she did it. She loved Cooper. She really, really did. But sometimes the reality of his disability was overwhelming. Like now, when she was experiencing cuddling with him for the first time in three seasons of dating. When she knew he'd never be able to draw her closer, squeezing her into his body like she yearned for him to do. When they had two hours of the unknown spread out before them. She knew, viscerally and for the first time, why he'd been ambivalent about what they were planning to do tonight. Why he'd worried he'd feel trapped in his own body, understanding more painfully than ever before what was and what would never be. Overwhelmed momentarily, she turned and buried her face against his chest, hoping to hide her tears from him.
"Meag," he soothed, and she risked a peak up at him. He was smiling widely now, reassuring her. "This is supposed to be fun."
"You think it will be?"
"You and me, naked? How could it not be?"
She laughed and wiped away her tears. Cooper frowned. "I wish I could do that for you."
"You do," she replied. "Just...metaphorically."
As Meaghan crossed her arms and grabbed the hem of her t-shirt, preparing to lift it over her head and off her body, Cooper shook his head. She froze. They'd been making out for a fifteen minutes; was he not ready yet? Or...what if he didn't want to see her?
Then he whispered, "You're so beautiful."
She ducked her head demurely. Growing up, she'd been so different from her mostly-Caucasian friends and schoolmates. She'd long since stopped thinking of herself as ugly, per se, but she also knew she wasn't a great beauty. There were her freckles, for one, marring the porcelain complexion preferred by her culture. As she tentatively raised her shirt over her head, she also remembered the faint striae that had formed on her hips when she'd had her biggest growth spurt at thirteen. And the belly she'd never had until after she'd finished college. And her (to her thinking) too-dark areolas.
She removed her bra and, raising her eyes to Cooper's, she searched his face for his opinion of her now-bare upper body. Most people would think she was insane for worrying that Cooper would find her body unattractive. But most people hadn't sat with his mother perusing albums of pictures of Cooper, from his birth to his accident. Most people didn't know that he'd been, between those bookends of time, an absolute paragon of physical perfection. Tall (gigantic would be a better word), tan, tight. He was like a Greek god. And the occasional girl that popped up in the pictures at his side was, without fail, a goddess. Mostly they were fellow rowers: Amazons with beautiful shoulders, narrow hips and thighs like cannons; sun-bleached blonde hair thrown into effortlessly perfect buns; glittering blue or green eyes reflecting the water they were almost always posed near. Meaghan, at five-feet-nothing, with her pale skin and ethnic face, couldn't help but compare herself unfavorably.
Yet as she looked at Cooper, she saw nothing but acceptance and desire. She crawled toward him on the bed, up and over his still legs, finally straddling him across his hips. As she did, she heard the faint crinkle of the diaper concealed under his pants, the one he hadn't yet told her about, the one she'd given no indication she already knew about. She'd discovered it months ago, when she'd forgotten "the rules" and slipped her hand down his pants in a fever of passion as they made out after a romantic movie they'd gone to see. She had been surprised, but had luckily been able to conceal it, and he'd remained none the wiser.
Slowly, she leaned toward him, delighting in the way his pupils flared at her approach. It pleased her to know some part of his body could react to the sight of her. She offered him her right breast, bringing the erect nipple to within millimeters of his lips. For a reverent moment, he just looked at it, amazement in his eyes. Then he let out a warm breath against the cool skin and took it in his mouth.
Cooper was sure he'd never been this turned on before in his life, as he kissed and licked and nipped at Meaghan's small but perfectly symmetrical breasts. Though he couldn't feel his heart thumping in his chest, he knew it was, from the way the blood was rushing in his ears.
Meaghan moaned and arched her back, accidentally pulling her breasts out of his reach. "More," he gasped, and she fell upon him once again. He sucked at her urgently until she pulled away again, this time on purpose. She unbuttoned her jeans and peeled them down, leaving her clothed in only a black lace thong. Cooper groaned in response to her near-nudity.
Meaghan returned to Cooper and turned her attention to the fly of his pants. He wanted to swat her hand away, but of course he couldn't. "No," he said forcefully. "Danny'll come in and get me ready."
Meaghan sat back, trying not to be hurt. "Do you trust me?"
"Of course, I trust you. It's not about trust."
"Danny knows what to do."
"Can you teach me what to do?"
Cooper sighed. He and Danny had already worked this part out, and now Meaghan was changing it up. The plan had been for Meaghan and Cooper to have some time alone, and then Danny would come in (and Meaghan would leave) to prepare Cooper for sex. That meant undressing him; unstrapping his leg bag and hanging it inconspicuously from the bed frame with a hook that Danny had brought for that very purpose; removing his diaper; placing a chux under the sheet beneath him in case he had an accident; and inserting a small alprostadil tablet into the opening of his urethra to (hopefully) stimulate an erection. Real sexy stuff, Cooper thought sarcastically. And not anything he wanted Meaghan to see. Not on their first time anyway.
"It's complicated," he explained.
"Are you embarrassed for me to see?" she asked.
He paused. "A little. Yeah."
She sat back on her heels and looked at him for a moment. Damn, she was hot. Her tiny waist and those gorgeous perky breasts and that fucking thong.
"Well, I don't want to embarrass you..."
Cooper exhaled in relief.
"...but I also don't want you to hide the parts of you that you think I won't like. You're seeing me--" She spread her arms, indicating her nakedness. "--so I want to see you. All of you."
Cooper very seriously doubted she had any idea what she was asking for. But she was getting a look in her eyes that he'd seen before. As soft and funny and cute as she was, there was a toughness, too. When she really believed in something, it was hard to argue her out of it.
"Fine," Cooper said, finally. She beamed.
"What do I do?"
"That's--that is--that--" Cooper fumbled as Meaghan unzipped his jeans, revealing the padded white disposable undergarment beneath. He closed his eyes. "I need that," he finally finished obliquely.
Meaghan reached up and brushed her fingers across his cheek, coercing him to open his eyes. He did, looking miserable and ashamed.
"If you want to stop now, we can," he said.
She shook her head. "Cooper. It's really not a big deal."
He turned his head away, focusing on the lamp at the bedside. She continued. "You're disabled. That's part of who you are. So if you need it, then...that's okay. I accept it. I accept you." Her hand still on his cheek, she prodded his gaze back to meet her own. He didn't look like he believed her. So she began to prove it to him.
She lowered her hands once more to his zipper, opening it all the way. She curled her fingertips around the waistband and tugged gently, slowly. Five minutes later, she had removed his pants down to his ankles, revealing not only the undergarment but also his catheter tubing and leg bag. She'd guessed he was incontinent. So it didn't surprise her to see the apparatuses that assisted him in functions he no longer had control over. Cooper, when she looked up, was staring at her intensely.
She smiled and winked at him. "Still not freaked out." She gestured to the leg bag. "Should we take this off?" she asked.
Cooper nodded. "Yeah. Unstrap it. But, uh. I need it to stay connected to the tube." She did as he directed and then lifted the bag, warmed by his body heat and its contents, over the side of the bed. She glanced a question at him. "Danny has a hook for that," he murmured. She furrowed her brow. The whole point of this was to avoid having to invite Danny into their sex life. Then she had an idea. She leaned forward and hooked the bag, which had a loop on it, onto the knob of her night stand drawer. It fit perfectly. As he watched, for the first time since she'd unzipped his pants, Cooper smiled. "Well, look at you, MacGyver."
"I actually bought that night stand specifically for that reason," she joked, and was rewarded with a laugh from Cooper.
Cooper couldn't believe this was happening, on any level. That Meaghan loved him. Accepted him. Wasn't bothered by all the freaky accoutrements of his disability. In the back of his head, he'd been waiting for months for the other shoe to drop. Surely this couldn't be real. Surely he was being pranked. Surely he was the victim in an 80s-style teen movie where a popular girl takes a bet to seduce the town cripple. Any minute now, a crowd of laughing teenagers would burst in, or he'd see the hidden camera in her A/C vent, or the bucket of pig's blood would slosh its crimson contents onto him. But it kept not happening. On the contrary, as he watched Meaghan lift his arms as she worked his shirt off, he saw only desire in her eyes. Well, that and maybe a hint of mischief. The good kind. The sexy kind. Holy shit, she was sexy.
Finally, he lay there wearing nothing but his diaper, Meaghan once again straddling him in nothing but that black thong. He mentally rolled his eyes at the disparity in attractiveness of their respective undergarments. Not much sexier than what she was wearing; not much less sexy than what he was. But Meaghan detached the tabs wordlessly and pulled it off him like it was no big deal. She tossed it off the side of the bed, then shimmied out of her own underwear and suddenly, they were both naked.
Cooper risked a glance down at his penis, over the soft mound of his belly, hoping against hope that it was even somewhat aroused. It wasn't. It lay motionless in his thatch of light brown pubic hair (that he'd had Danny trim for him that day), as comatose as it had been for three years. Meaghan reached for it and grasped it. Of course, Cooper did not feel it. And of course, it did not respond. After a few minutes of stroking and cajoling it, with no result, Cooper interrupted her. "This is where we really do need Danny."
Five minutes later, Meaghan was peeking over Danny's shoulder, her silk robe wrapped modestly around her. He was massaging some kind of medicated pellet directly into Cooper's urethra. She guessed that it would've been extremely unpleasant, if Cooper could feel it. She kind of couldn't believe her own nonchalance as she watched; she really wasn't the same girl who had run from the Benfords' house all those months ago. Or, maybe she was. Maybe it was Cooper who was different. Different to her, anyway. He was...just Cooper. And she loved Cooper. So if the Cooper she loved needed a little help to get it up, what was the problem?
When Danny was done, he turned to Meaghan and held out a lime green silicone band about the circumference of a hair elastic but about an inch wide. Then he turned to Cooper. "You can tell her about that, yeah?" Cooper responded affirmatively and Danny left the room. The consummate professional, he hadn't made jokes or leered at Meaghan or really even said anything that wasn't necessary to complete his task. Cooper had mostly been lucky to have good caregivers since he'd been paralyzed, but he'd also had a few doozies. Danny was a miracle, and had become a close friend to Cooper. Meaghan was intensely grateful for how well he cared for the man she loved.
She approached Cooper once more and held up the band. She raised an eyebrow. He answered. "It's for if I get hard."
Cooper winced. "Sorry. No guarantees."
Meaghan nodded and returned to him at the bed. She dropped her robe and took a moment to survey him, from head to toe. He remained silent as she did so. She knew he was terribly self-conscious about how his body looked, and she supposed she didn't blame him for that, considering what he had been. But the new Cooper wasn't really all that bad. His body was atrophied in every spot you'd expect a young man of his age to have muscles, but it wasn't grotesque. His arms and legs clearly didn't work anymore, their thinness the biggest clue to that. In contrast, his belly was fleshy and soft. But his chest was pleasantly hairless (as Meaghan, and most of her Asian friends, preferred), his big hands elegant, and his face perfect.
She climbed on top of him again. She felt his dick against her bare vulva, and even though he was still completely flaccid, the sensation sent a zing of desperate need through her, causing her mouth to salivate and her toes to curl. She began to rock her hips, closing her eyes and breathing through her nose, no longer caring if her breasts were too small or her skin too imperfect.
"I want to touch you," Cooper said after a minute, and she cocked her head at him.
"I want to touch you," he repeated. "Will you put my hand on your breast?"
Meaghan smiled hugely at him and did just that. Oh, wow, she thought, barely coherent. His large, warm hand lit the fire again. She rubbed it against her breast, and he grinned in satisfaction as he watched the nipple became hard under his fingertips. Staring straight into his eyes, she then dragged his hand down her torso, past her belly button, and over her thin strip of pubic hair. His eyes bulged as she separated two of his fingers from the rest and brought them inside herself. She gasped as they entered. It had been a very long time since she'd been with a man and it was almost too much. Not wanting to cum too quickly, she didn't thrust, but just held his hand there, enjoying the sense of having been entered by him.
Apparently, Cooper did, too. His breaths ragged, he panted, "Come here."
Meaghan obliged, leaning toward him. He shook his head. "No," he said impatiently. He looked down at the junction of their bodies. "I want to use my mouth."
"Okay," Meaghan breathed. Then, "Um...how do we do that?"
"Straddle me," Cooper commanded. He nodded to each of his shoulders. "Here."
"Oh," Meaghan said, surprised. And intrigued.
As Meaghan mounted him, her aroused opening just inches from his mouth, Cooper could hardly concentrate. His head was spinning. He couldn't believe he was getting the chance to do this again. Last year, he'd been sure he never would. And now...oh, wow. Now.
Meaghan tentatively lowered herself until she was within reach of Cooper's eager tongue. He lapped lightly at first, exulting in the salty-sweet-earthy taste of her. He traced her outer lips, then gently forced his tongue into the folds between them and her inner lips. Meaghan's resulting sharp intake of breath told him he was on the right track. Cooper was far from virginal, but he'd never really needed to use his mouth before to please a girl. He felt lucky to be getting results.
Two minutes later, as he traced circles around her clitoris, Meaghan's thighs began to quake and she abruptly pulled away from him. He looked up at her questioningly. "I don't want to cum yet," she explained breathlessly.
"I want to have sex," she answered, as though it were obvious.
"Oh. Did I get hard?"
She looked over her shoulder, then turned back to him, perplexed. "No."
"I think this is our best bet then," he said, looking at her wet pussy, which he was still eye-level with.
"I want you to have fun, too, though."
He grinned up at her. "Believe me, I'm having fun."
"No, I mean...like that kind of fun."
Cooper paused. How had this message failed to send? "You know I can't, right?"
"Well, I thought that was what that medicine was for..." she trailed off.
"The medicine is just for the erection," he corrected gently.
"But not for the orgasm...?"
Cooper shook his head. Meaghan felt like crying. "You can't?" Cooper shook his head again, and this time a tear really did fall from her left eye. She quickly swiped it away, not wanting him to see it. Of course he did, though.
"Why are you crying?"
"I--I just thought--" Meaghan couldn't complete the thought aloud. And then the tears fell in earnest. She could see the distorted image of Cooper's concerned face through them and it just made her more upset. "It's not fair," she whispered fiercely. "It's taken everything from you. I thought that the problem was just getting it--" she gestured over her shoulder, meaning his penis, "--hard. And if we could, then you could..."
Meaghan stopped and wiped angrily at her tears. She had to grab hold of herself before she brought the evening to a screeching halt. With clear eyes, she looked down at Cooper. His face was unspeakably sad. "I'm so sorry," she said, repeating the inappropriate words she'd clumsily offered the night she'd met him face-to-face.
"You're not the only one it bothers," he said softly.
"Of course not," she rushed to offer. Surely he didn't think she was crying for herself?
"I'm stuck in this body for the rest of my life," he whispered. "And it won't move. And it drives me fucking crazy with rage some days." He looked up at her. "But there's nothing I can do about it. It's never going to change, no matter how pissed or sad I get." He swallowed hard. "I'm not ever going to get to experience sex again the way you can. I'll never get that same pleasure; I can't cum. But there are other things I can experience. And I won't just discount that. Not anymore. Not when I thought I'd never get a chance to be naked with a beautiful woman again."
Meaghan thought for a moment. Then she smiled coyly. "So you think I'm beautiful?"
"Let's just say I wouldn't kick you out of bed," Cooper smirked. "And not just because I can't kick, period. Now get back here."
Meaghan scooted back up and lowered herself once more onto his mouth. Once again, waves of pleasure set her muscles to twitching. When his eyes were closed, she glanced back again at his penis, and saw that it was still quiet and limp. Cutting her losses, she returned her attention to his warm breath on her wet pussy. A moment later, he penetrated her, reaching deeply into her with his tongue, and she was completely shocked at the force of the orgasm that overtook her.
Meaghan lay long against Cooper's warm body, enjoying the pressing of their skin and the warmth of their intimacy. Then she looked at the clock: 10:30PM. Danny was only on the clock until midnight, and he'd need all the time remaining until then to get Cooper home and into bed.
"I'm turning into a pumpkin," Cooper commented wryly, glancing at the clock for himself. Meaghan put her head down on his chest and listened to his heart beat for a moment. It was one of her favorite things to do, he knew. She'd once commented that it was nice to experience some part of his body below his neck still moving, the rhythmic thrum of it almost palpable to her soft cheek. He'd never thought of it that way before, but he too found it oddly comforting once she'd mentioned it. He lay quietly for as long as he could, then craned his neck and placed a kiss on the crown of her head. "Sorry," he apologized, and she groaned in response.
He watched as she stood and slid on her jeans without putting her thong back on. She snapped her bra back into place and tossed her shirt on, then shot him a grumpy look and left the room to get Danny. Together, Meaghan and Danny dressed Cooper, then reversed their earlier process in order to get him back into his wheelchair.
Once they'd gotten to Meaghan's door, Danny touched Cooper on the shoulder. "Meet you at the elevator," he said, and left Cooper and Meaghan to say their goodbyes. She sat on his lap and threaded her arms around his neck and between his body and the chair's backrest. She looked up at him with puppy-dog eyes.
"Will we ever get to sleep in the same bed?"
"Yeah," Cooper said quietly.