Lies, All Lies
Lisa hates mirrors. She hates seeing her almost bald head, the memory of her long, strawberry blond waves coming to her like a phantom limb. Jesse seems to be feeling similarly uncomfortable.
She hangs up the clothes on one of three hooks behind the door. This feels intimate, but then again, any time she’s around Jesse, she feels intimate.
He takes a deep breath. “Let me just start by saying that I can mostly dress myself.”
“Jesse, I don’t mind-”
“I know.” He smiles ruefully, his expression reflected three times over. “You met me at a time that my mobility became kind of comprised. At least, more than usual.” He holds up his bandaged hand.
“Jesse, it’s fine.” She looks at him stubbornly and wants him to know that this is normal. This is absolutely normal, and they’re going to make this normal.
She hopes. “Who’s first?”
She hopes. “Who’s first?”
“Well, I have a few shirts I need to try on. Once I have the right size, I’ll just get a few in different colours.”
Lisa crouches down and begins to unbutton his shirt. She wants to maintain eye contact, gauge if this is okay, but she can’t, so she focuses on the small white buttons in front of her. The skin beneath is soft and pale, and every time her fingers brush against it she flinches, and feels him flinching along with her.
“I can do the rest myself,” he says. “My injury is pretty low down. I might even learn to drive soon. I was actually planning on switching to a manual chair sometime in the near future, once I get a bit stronger, but I might have to push that off for a bit now because of my hand and Jesus, I’m talking a lot. Sorry.”
Lisa doesn’t say anything. She hadn’t anticipated how deeply awkward this would be, and it’s as if the tiny room had become saturated with all the things they’re thinking and feeling and Lisa wants to get out and breathe, all of a sudden. She takes a step back and watches Jesse wriggle of his shirt. His thin chest is like an emaciated man’s, skin pulled taut over ribs, with a small, soft belly.
He can’t do it. Lisa watches for another painful second until she steps in, crouches and gently helps him pull his arms from the sleeves.
He shakes his head, and his eyes meet hers like a fox in a trap and Lisa thinks, why am I undressing a man who doesn’t want me to?
The shirt comes off. His arms are sticks, his shoulders wide and freckled, distant memories of a body that was one strong and tanned. Lisa helps him put on a button-up and at one point she realizes how much easier this would be if he wasn’t struggling to help her, but the thought is so terrible she doesn’t entertain it again. The silence is choking them both. Lisa feels a thrum in her mind.
“You have to see what I picked for you,” she says lightly. She holds up a tank top and lets him try to put it on himself. It’s loose and skimpy, different than anything she’s ever seen him at wear, and he manages to get it on himself and swivels his chair to face the mirror.
He breaks out into a huge grin. The tank is gray and there’s a giant, colourful fist printed on the front with the middle finger extended.
Lisa, wearing a mischievous smile, folds her arms at his reflection. “When’s the last time you wore something like this?” She tops it off with a beanie, ruffling his hair first so that it sticks out in the front. Jesse laughs out loud. “I look ridiculous,” he says, and the tension dissipates, at least a little bit.
Lisa rifles through the jeans and shirts in Jesse’s pile of clothing until she finds the one item that must be for her. She pulls it out and holds it at arms’ length.
“Ha!” She says. “I would never wear this.”
“That’s the point, isn’t it?”
Jesse’s picked out a blue, knee-length dress for her, with cap sleeves and a pattern of lemons and little lemonade pitchers. It looks like a nurse's scrubs slash 1950’s housecoat. She resists the urge to wrinkle her nose, and quickly turns toward the corner to pull off her tank and put on the dress, with her jeans still on underneath. Lisa turns toward the mirror with a grimace, but behind her, Jesse is smiling smugly.
“Pretty,” he says, looking like he wants to say more.
“Pretty,” he says, looking like he wants to say more.
“I guess I can work with it. Chop it up, maybe.” Since that’s the nicest thing she can muster, Lisa begins to raise the lemonade dress over her head before Jesse can say anything else, but he does.
“Hold it. We have to take a picture, you said.”
Lisa sighs and scoots the dress back down her thighs. “Fine. But you need to be in it, too.”
“You can sit on my lap,” Jesse says. Lisa looks down at his legs, which are probably just as skinny as his arms. She pushes them aside gingerly and wedges half her weight into the space beside him. She pulls out her phone to take the picture.
It’s an incredibly uncomfortable and off-balance position. She tries to rest her head on his shoulder so she doesn’t fall over, and it’s in the midst of these few seconds of awkward positioning that Jesse whispers in her ear, “You smell so good.” A shiver runs up her spine as he touches his lips to the spot beneath her ear.
She’s up in an instant, turning away from him, but with all the mirrors there’s nowhere to hide. “You don’t want this,” she says firmly, turning toward him and sinking into the chair so they can be at eye-level. “You said that yourself, Jesse, and then I told that I don’t want someone who doesn’t want me. Remember?”
“Just once,” he says, a desperation in his voice that she’s never heard before. “Just to get it out of our systems.”
Of course this would happen. His eyes are sad, like a reflection of hers, two people looking and looking but scared, maybe, not sure what they’re looking for.
Lisa shakes her head but even as she is she’s leaning into him, grasping his head in both hands and smelling the ocean on him and exploring his mouth with her tongue. She’s pulling off his tank and her dress, touching his warm skin and bringing his curled hands to her breasts, inside her bra. Ecstasy is rushing through her body, the delirium and unfiltered pleasure of him against her. Jesse’s movements are frantic, like they are the last two people on earth. He swivels to the right and the mirrors rattle as he bangs them both into the wall, and now Lisa is really thrown off-balance, teetering over the side of his chair, catching herself with an extended leg, but finally sliding to the floor.
Panting so hard she can barely breathe, she begins to laugh in short, gasping bursts. When she lifts herself off the floor, she sees that Jesse’s smiling, but that there are tears in his eyes. She wipes them away and leans over to kiss him deeply.
“We’re still friends, right?” he says, breathless, with she breaks away.
Lisa pauses, mid-undressing.
Friends? That was the hottest kissing make-out session she’s ever had. He still wants to be friends? What did she do wrong?
The poor mirrors rattle again as somebody pounds on the door. A hoarse male voice yells from behind the door. “This ain’t a brothel. Get out of there!”
“Sorry!” Lisa calls out. She hurriedly helps Jesse back into his original shirt and sorts everything into two piles: his, and hers.
She creaks open the door to see an older man with graying hair, sitting in a manual wheelchair. There is a pair of jeans folded neatly on his lap.
“Teenagers,” he snarls. “Can’t you read? Don’t you see this is the handicapped stall?”
Lisa steps to the side as Jesse rolls out the door.
“Well, they told me I was handicapped,” he says. “I don’t know. Maybe they were lying.”
The man raises an eyebrow, and swerves around Jesse, slamming the door behind him. Jesse looks up at Lisa and gives her a wide smile, as if he hasn’t just made out with her and then told her oh, hey, that meant nothing to me. Hope you’re okay with that!
Indifferently, he goes up to the girl by the counter outside changing rooms. Lisa dutifully dumps their stuff on his lap and he sorts out what they’re taking: three shirts for him, a pair of jeans he didn’t even try on, the middle-finger tank she picked for him, and the lemonade dress. Apparently he thinks she’s buying it. Now how do you politely back out of that?
The girl lifts the not-taking pile from his lap. Her eyes are big as she looks at him and asks, “Are you guys together?”
Jesse chuckles nervously. Lisa smolders. Yeah, tell her, she thinks.
“Not that I want to pry,” the salesgirl says quickly. “Just, like, you guys are sooo inspirational, and like, yeah. You must hear that all the time.”
“Oh, we do,” Lisa says, patting Jesse on the shoulder. “And I totally agree. I see Jesse getting out of bed and going out into the real world, and you know, it just inspires me so much.”
The girl nods, her wide eyes widening. Jesse looks bemused. “We met when I got hurt, actually.”
The girl looks interested, the way Dustin did when Lisa told him her phony shark story. She wonders if people think that listening to the traumas of others is their Good Deed for the day. Either way, Jesse does not disappoint.
“It was three years ago,” he begins. “I was in Redwood National Park, in California, where the world’s tallest trees are. These trees are so wide, you’d need over twenty people holding hands to make a chain around the base. Anyway, I was doing a bit of climbing during my summer break, and I think I was about two hundred feet up when I saw Lisa.”
Another worker, a short, dark-skinned woman who had been sorting things behind the counter, wanders over to listen.
“We had never met before,” Lisa says, continuing where Jesse left off. “I was climbing, too, and I had long hair that I had taken down for a moment to redo my ponytail, when I slipped and my hair got all tangled in a branch.”
“Luckily, I had a Swiss army knife on me,” Jesse continues. “I cut off her hair and we managed to climb down most of the way together. We were so close to the ground, relatively speaking, when I fell.”
The first salesgirl gasps. The second woman wrinkles her forehead, but she isn’t about to dispute a disabled guy’s story.
“Wow,” the younger girl says in a breathy voice. “Can I take a picture with you guys?”
“Sure,” Jesse says. Lisa puts her arm around his shoulder, but the burning desire she felt when she touched him before is gone, replaced by a simmering, stewing, angry hurt.
Jesse has a special stand on his armrest where he usually puts his phone. To use his Samsung, he’ll wedge his thumb between his fingers and use the touchscreen, but today he forgot to ask Ilana to set it up for him. So when he feels a series of consecutive vibrations in his front pocket, he bites his lip and asks Lisa to check his messages.
They are passing through a narrow, cobbled street in the Old Port District. The shops on both sides are quaint in a touristy way, but as the day wanes and the lights in the old-fashioned lanterns turn on, the Old Port looks charming. The air is sweet and musty and familiar to Jesse, bringing back memories of custard donuts eaten with a view of the ocean. Tourists laugh and talk and amble in and out of the red brick buildings, checking out the bars, the overpriced boutiques, and the eateries. A cool breeze has begun to replace the daytime summer heat.
Lisa slips the phone out of his pocket, clicks it on and holds it in front of his face. Jesse is reminiscent of Ilana, who does the same thing so he can have at least a small measure of privacy. He doesn’t want it to be that way with Lisa so he says, “You can look. I have no secrets.”
Lisa gives the subtlest of smirks, and pulls the phone away. Is she still upset about before? Jesse hopes she’s not messed up for life after what she saw in the changing room. She was hostile for a while after, but she’s mostly thawed out by now. He hopes.
Jesse has a habit of imagining himself from an outside perspective. For example, when he used to go hiking with Brian, he’d picture what they looked like from above; two boys scrambling over branches, tiny if you zoom out and see the entire forest and the waterfall beside it.
He had done the same thing when he kissed Lisa. He imagined them, two bodies in sync, pulsating and writhing in a beautiful mess of people in a passion.
Then he made the mistake of opening his eyes. He saw himself in the mirror. He saw Lisa leaning over him, sexy in a cherry red bra, soft and curved and gently shadowed in all the right places. The muscles on her arms were showing and her neck was long and thin.
He saw himself. He saw his wimpy frame, his weak arms, his sagging stomach. He saw himself shirtless in his bulky chair, and instantly felt the sting of deep-seated disgust and shame. How could she touch an atrophied, ugly thing like him? Did she feel obligated? She must have. Lisa was been too kind to refuse him.
But it was a mistake. Never again would be make her do this.
But it was a mistake. Never again would be make her do this.
Lisa, for her part, was definitely uncomfortable afterwards. He was right- she didn’t want him, and he was grateful for that. It made things easier. Now he hopes she can forgive him.
“Dustin texted you,” she says. “he says he found a really good lobster place. He sent a picture. Then he says… that he’s negotiating with them? He wrote ‘hashtag protect veggie rights.’ What the hell does that mean?”
Jesse rolls his eyes. “With that guy, who knows. Did he give an address?”
Lisa scrolls. “Um, yeah. Oh, I think we just passed that street.”
Relief floods him. “Good. I have to ask him to do something for me.”
Lisa doesn’t ask. Jesse realizes that he’s never known anyone like her, someone so nonchalant about his disability. He tries to remember when she’s asked him questions about it, and can’t come up with more than a few occasions.
“I’ll tell him that we’re coming,” Lisa says, unlocking his phone and texting Dustin with experienced thumbs. Jesse doesn’t have a password. Having one would be impractical, since too many people would have to memorize it.
They continue down the street, him bumping along unsteadily on the cobbles. It’s quite uncomfortable, actually. Lisa glances at him quickly every few seconds, then turns away whenever he catches her eye. Ahead of them, the streets are emptying and the Old Port’s nightlife is starting to emerge, like a cat waking slowly from its slumber. Jesse hears old swing music coming from the distance. A bar nearby spills yellow light onto the cobblestones, enticing passersby with the scent of alcohol and the thump of good music.
“Look at this!” Lisa exclaims as they turn a corner. A huge concrete wall is covered in abstract graffiti, lit by street lamps and framed with snaking vines and weeds. There are faces and crosses and a jumble of other things, making up an orange, green and blue collage of obscure social commentary.
“This has always been my favourite spot in Portland,” Jesse says, rolling up close to the wall. He’s seeing it from a different perspective than he’s used to, but the art is the same. Lisa looks captivated, running her fingers over the rough wall, over the lines and the popping colours.
“Does it have a meaning?” She says.
“Most people wouldn’t ask that,” he says. “I think so. I’ve always wondered.”
She turns to look at him, concern written all over her face. “What’s wrong?”
Are his thoughts that obvious? “Nothing. I’m just a bitter old cripple.”
“Jesse…” her tone is warning.
He rubs his eyes with the back of his hand. “Just… memories, that’s all. I used to spray paint, believe it or not. I drew, I painted, anything. I even did a mural in the kid’s lounge on the Sierra.”
Lisa takes his hand and looks back up at the mural. “I’d love to see it,” she says quietly. Then, remembering, she drops his hand like a radioactive potato and steps away.
Jesse backs away from the wall and starts down the street, and Lisa follows.
They find Dustin, fuming and sitting at a table outside a small restaurant. He’s hard to miss, since he’s wearing a bright yellow sweater, which along with his black hair and black jeans makes him look like a very tall bumblebee. The restaurant has a big, smiling lobster hanging above the door, and circular windows that show a cramped eating space inside.
“They laughed at me,” he says.
Jesse and Lisa exchange a look, and finally Lisa asks, “why did they laugh at you, Dustin?”
“Well, I was doing research for my educational pamphlet about Portland, Maine, New England, USA.” He glances at Jesse. “I kept hearing about the lobsters here, but I had to figure out if I could eat them because my fiancé is a vegetarian so I became a vegetarian in support. And I know vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish, and lobster is neither of those, right?”
Jesse sighs. “You might want to sit down, Lisa.”
“You’re engaged?” Lisa says, pulling out a chair opposite Dustin. Jesse slides in to the space between them.
“Yes. Why is everyone so surprised?” Dustin says, drumming his fingers against the tabletop. “Anyway. Back to the lobster.”
“Some vegetarians eat fish,” Lisa says. “But if your girlfriend is ovo-lacto, then she won’t eat anything that was ever alive, including seafood.”
“My girlfriend?” Dustin looks puzzled. “The point is, I went in and asked the guy behind the counter if they had any vegetarian lobster, just to be safe. He laughed and said, ‘we don’t serve any fake crap in here. You want tofu, go to that hippie organic market two streets over.’”
“Can I ask you something?” Jesse blurts. They both look at him. “Um, I mean Dustin,” he says.
“Oh,” Lisa says. Without any invitation to do so, she pushes back her chair and heads a small distance away, pretending to be interested in a jewelry store two shops over.
Dustin stares at him expectantly. Fuck. Jesse opens his mouth twice before he can talk.
Two minutes later, Dustin is crouched in front of him in a pungent-smelling public restroom.
“You gotta tell me what to do,” Dustin says, and Jesse almost admonishes him to be quieter, but fuck it, lots of people saw two men go into the stall together, so it’s not like he has any pride left to salvage.
“The bag is inside my jeans, next to my left thigh,” Jesse says. He cranes his head upwards as Dustin unzips his fly. The corners of the ceiling are growing mold, and there is a brown water stain near the light fixtures.
Dustin reaches inside for his leg bag, and Jesse instructs him how to empty it. “I wouldn’t ask you to do this, honestly, but there can be… issues, if it gets backed up and-"
“It’s cool, man. Don’t worry.” Dustin takes the bag and opens the bottom. “So you’ve got a tube attached to your dick? Interesting.” he drains the orangey-yellow liquid down the toilet, and flushes.
“Yeah,” Jesse says, and his voice falters.
Unexpectedly, Dustin stamps his foot and smashes a fist into the wall.
“What was that for?” Jesse says, alarmed.
Dustin shrugs. “Dunno. It just looks like you really want to do that right now. I’m helping.”
A lump rises in Jesse’s throat. “Thank you,” he says.
Dustin unlocks the stall and washes his hands, then helps Jesse wash his, the one that isn’t bandaged, although Jesse technically hasn’t touched anything unclean.
Lisa is waiting outside for them. “Are you guys hungry?” She says flatly.
They find a place nearby that is wheelchair accessible and illogically expensive, but Jesse explains that the prices are normal for this area. Dustin orders grilled lobster and pasta after making Jesse and Lisa both promise not to tell his fiancé. Lisa and Jesse both order salmon.
“I figure it’s easier for us to get the same thing if I’m gonna help you eat,” Lisa says when the food arrives.
“Dustin said he’ll feed me,” Jesse replies. Dustin had casually offered to help as they were coming into the restaurant, and Jesse is definitely going to take him up on his offer.
Lisa says nothing, just cuts off a piece of her salmon and puts it in her mouth. Dustin scoots his chair to be nearer to Jesse.
Afterwards, they stroll around the area, helping Dustin wrap up the last of his of his ‘research.’ Jesse is dubious about this educational pamphlet business, but he dutifully untangles the details of Portland’s history, which are quite muddled in Dustin’s brain. Lisa is muted, except for when they come across an antique bookstore. Dustin is excited at the potential relics he’ll come across for his pamphlet, so he rushes inside. Chimes sing to announce his entrance. Lisa holds the door open for Jesse, but there is a tall step, and half the doorway is obscured by a bookshelf.
“I’ll stay outside with you,” she says quickly, releasing the door.
“You can go,” Jesse says, resting his head back on his headrest. “Really. I’m fine on my own.”
“I want to stay.”
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
“What’s wrong with you?” She says loudly, very suddenly, attracting the attention of a few people passing by. A woman gives Lisa a horrified glare, as if yelling at a man in a wheelchair is Cruelty itself.
She lowers her voice. “Before, with Dustin,” she says, standing in front of him with her hands on her hips. “Why didn’t you ask me to help you? I could have. We were together all day, and I know you... Do it on a schedule, normally.”
“You aren’t seriously asking, are you?”
Jesse bristles. “Okay, to be blunt, I didn’t feel comfortable asking you to empty my urine bag. Okay? And Dustin is a guy. It’s different.”
“Bullshit.” Lisa folds her arms. “Ilana’s not a guy.” Apparently feeling uncomfortable with the height difference, she leans against the wall and slides down a bit. “So this means we can never go anywhere, us two. We would always needs to bring someone along.”
Jesse says nothing. His eyes flickers upwards to hers, and he has to squint to look at her, a black silhouette haloed in artificial light.
“You’re so different on the Sierra,” Lisa says, and her voice is softer, reflective, almost like she’s talking to herself. “Maybe you’re more at home there. Here in the real world, you get reminded of how different you are. You hate it, don’t you?”
He swivels so he can see her, getting in the path of an evening wind that makes him shudder. “What do you want, Lisa?”
“Why do you let Dustin, and not me? Why won’t you let me in?” She shakes her head, eerie in her calmness. “What are you so afraid of?”
He’s shaking, and it’s not from the cold. “I barely know you,” he says, and the voice that comes out is low, and harsh, like nothing that he’s used to.
“I guess you’re right,” she says, and slides lower on the wall.
The chimes jingle merrily, and Dustin comes out of the bookstore, sneezing into his elbow. “Dusty,” he says. “And all the books are outdated.”
They call a cab to take them back to the docks. The Sierra is scheduled to sail from Portland to Halifax tonight, but Jesse is working tomorrow, on Sunday, so he won’t get the chance to see the city.
Whatever. Touring is overrated.
They say that the Sierra is named after the Sierra club, the first non-government environmental group. What the connection between a giant, puffing cruise ship and the environment is, Lisa cannot fathom.
She lies awake thinking these thoughts, cocooned inside her blankets, her eyes trained on the glint of springs of the bunk bed above her. The room is dark and empty- her three roommates (and fellow workers) are all doing night shifts. The waves crashing outside and the sound of her steadily ticking watch are off-sync, which is slowly driving her fruitbat crazy. At least, she tells herself that this is the reason she can’t fall asleep. That, and the fact that he racing mind won’t shut up.
She’d imagined what this job would be like from the minute she got the email of acceptance. Of course she pictured hard work. Of course she pictured exhaustion. But her romantic imaginations of the Sierra had never involved standing on her feet all day, running around and serving scrambled eggs and sandwiches, getting yelled at by an uppity sous-chef, and finally collapsing into bed at nine o’clock. They’d never involved falling for an inexplicably attractive paralysed man, and getting abruptly rejected by said man.
Though they haven’t spoken or texted since Portland two days ago, Lisa sees Jesse constantly, which is like a tease, every time. She’ll be rushing through the Roman and Jesse will roll by and greet an old couple warmly, asking them if their switch to a different suite went smoothly. A worried dad might approach him, asking if the arrangements for his daughter’s gluten-free meals were taken care of. Jesse will soothe him with an easy smile and friendly reassurances, and move on to the next passenger to chat about the sunny weather. Jesse seems to be on a first-name-basis the entire crew, and well acquainted with Dustin’s friends (all thirty-five of them.)
Meanwhile, Lisa is becoming more isolated every day. Small talk and meaningless chatter have always been a chore for her, but now she just can’t be bothered trying to socialize. As a result, she spends a lot of time with her headphones on, a blanket wrapped around her and the lights out. Even her mother has become distant during their phone calls. She won’t bring up Carolyn at all, and the curtness in her voice has almost driven Lisa to calling up the hospital herself.
On Monday, Lisa is serving drinks on the deck. The Sierra is going to be docking at the port in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, today. She nearly trips over a woman sprawled over the ground in a speedo and sunglasses, who is taking advantage of the bright, early morning sun. She has Asian features, and cropped hair that looks like a grown-out version of Ellen DeGeneres’s haircut. She looks familiar, somehow.
“Oh! I am so sorry, ma’am.” Lisa straightens herself out, and thanks whatever gods that may be out there for the fact that she isn’t holding any full glasses.
The woman removes her shades, and raises a perfectly arched eyebrow at Lisa. It’s Katie and Brian’s mother, who Lisa now knows is one of the ship’s cooks.
“Those lawn chairs are hell on my back,” she says. “Though perhaps they have an advantage over lying on the floor.”
Lisa, who had never been very adept at talking to strangers (unless she’s recounting a story about her hair) blurts out, “your tan is coming along very nicely.”
“Thank you,” the cook says.
“You are also raising your risk of getting skin cancer.”
“Hmm.” The woman slides her sunglasses back on. “Are you the girl with the hots on Jesse Alvaro?”
“No.” Lisa tilts her head to the side, trying to evade the blasting glare of the sun. ‘The hots’ isn’t a term she would use, anyway.
The cook grins- her teeth are crooked, the one flaw in her otherwise perfect complexion. “You may have met my daughter Katie,” she says. “Katie knows everything. She tells me everything.”
“I’m sorry,” Lisa says. “I really have to get back to work.”
“Don’t break his heart,” the cook says, sitting up so she can roll onto her side. “It’s hard to be a boy of twenty who can’t feel his genitals.”
That’s the least of his problems, Lisa thinks. As she walks toward the main atrium, she passes one of the outdoor kiddie pools. It’s about four feet at its deepest, and enclosed by a cheesy yellow plastic fence. Overlooking it is a green slide shaped like a dragon, breathing gushes of water and squealing kids directly into the pool.
Jesse sits inside with Dustin, and the two of them are talking to Brain, who is the lifeguard on duty. Jesse looks up, sees her and waves.
Lisa ducks her head and doesn’t wave back. The cook was wrong. If anyone here is the heartless heartbreaker, it definitely isn’t her.
She hears her name. “Can’t you ask Lisa?” Dustin is saying to Jesse.
She whirls back around.
She whirls back around.
“Ask me what?” She says loudly.
The morning before this happened, Jesse is lying in bed, waiting for the clock on the opposite wall to read seven. Usually, he would get out of bed himself, with the help of a clever ropey contraption that hangs from the ceiling, but his sprained wrist makes everything doubly as hard. He manages to get himself into a sitting position, when at six-fifty-nine the door bangs open.
Weird. Ilana usually knocks.
Brian barges in, sweaty from an early session in the gym. “I’ve got news,” he says, heading straight for Jesse’s night bag. “First of all, guess who’s-”
“Hey, whoah. Hands off the pee bag.”
“What the hell? Why?” Brian looks affronted, but takes a step back from Jesse’s bed.
“I’m trying to be more independent,” Jesse says. He burrows his elbow into his mattress, an attempt at getting leverage so he can move his body. The pain in his wrist makes him gasp, and he falls back onto his pillow.
Brian snort-laughs, then wipes away a fake tear. “Dude, your sense of humour in these hard times inspires us all.”
“No, really.” Jesse watches as Brian ignores his request and begins to switch out his night bag, which is hanging over a rack near the bed. “I’ve realized that I want to separate business from pleasure. I hired someone to take care of me, and that’s it.”
“I’m touched. No one’s ever called me a pleasure before.” Brian finds a pair of ankle socks in the night table drawer and coaxes them onto Jesse’s feet.
“I know what I’ve been doing wrong,” Jesse says, “and I’m going to change. My friends are my friends. Not my caretakers.”
“I’m sorry if I’m doing such a terrible job.” The hurt in Brian’s voice is fake. Jesse hopes.
“On a related note,” Brian says, lifting Jesse’s right leg for a stretch, “I’ve got an offer for you. I got that therapy job at the hospital in New York, the one I've been telling you about. They’ve got this intense new program, huge sponsors, new building, the works- and you’d get back half your mobility in a year, minimum.”
“Wow. Congratulations, man.”
Brian releases Jesse’s legs and sits on the edge of the bed. “Do your get what I’m telling you? I’m offering you an in into the program. God knows you can afford it.” His voice softens, and he looks Jesse in the eyes.
Jesse can’t remember his friend being so serious about anything. Even when Brian’s dog died, he was sarcastic and jokey about it.
Jesse can’t remember his friend being so serious about anything. Even when Brian’s dog died, he was sarcastic and jokey about it.
“Just imagine,” Brian says, pulling Jesse into a sitting position. “You and me, man, hitting the pool or the machines all day. You’ll be out of this fucking chair before you know it.”
With one hand supporting Jesse’s back, he grabs a shirt that’s crumpled on the floor and helps Jesse into it. He does the same with a pair of jeans.
And Jesse understands, finally. He might have been the one to get Brian interested in physical therapy, but now Brian is branching out, getting a degree of his own, finding work. This isn’t just a gateway job for Brian. It’s his thing now, a thing of his own.
“This is what you want to do with your life, isn’t it?” Jesse says.
Brian nods. “So you’ll come?”
“I don’t know, man… I’m in the middle of getting my degree. Life goes on, you know?”
The funny thing is, he and Brian are what some would call ‘summer friends.’ After a summer’s worth of ten day cruises, the two of them go back to their respective lives. Besides for Thanksgiving, they don’t stay in touch that much. They don’t need to, because they’ve got the promise of the summer together, every year.
“Can’t you transfer schools or something? And you can study part time.” Brian grunts as he lifts Jesse into his wheelchair, which is waiting patiently for its occupant at the foot of the bed.
There’s a knock on the open door, and Ilana trudges into the room, looking like she hasn’t quite woken up yet. She mumbles a hello and disappears into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
The two of them watch her go, both thinking things but neither of them speaking. Brian pats Jesse on the knee. “Think about it, man. Really.”
He gets up to leave, but at the doorway, he doubles back.
“You left this with me yesterday,” he says, tossing Jesse’s cellphone onto the bed. “Oh, and your mom called. She heard about your hand, and so guess who’s boarding the Sierra when we stop at Gaspésie?” Brian pauses.
Great. Jesse’s mother has always been doting, but since his accident, she’s gone back to making decisions for her son. Jesse’s dad says that it’s her way of coping. Jesse thinks it’s just plain degrading.
“Ruby,” Brian says, grinning.
“Ruby?” Jesse repeats.
Ruby Mitchell-Kim. Age 22, green eyes, fairytale blond hair. Physical therapist extraordinare. In past years, she was commonly referred to by the young male passengers on the Sierra as The Sexy Bitch, or sometimes just The Bitch, for short. Jesse was the only one who ever called her Sexy, exclusively.
“Uh, dude?” Brian waves his hand in the air, as if Jesse has forgotten who Ruby Mitchell-Kim is. “Your girlfriend? Remember?”
“My ex-girlfriend.” Jesse feels the panic staring to flood his brain. Ruby is coming here, on the Dreamwave New England Tour aboard the Sierra.
Oh, hell, no.