Lies, All Lies
Ilana continues to be distinctly absent from Jesse’s life, appearing only every morning, evening, and lunchtime- instead of her usual routine, which is to check in on Jesse in the office every hour. While that may sound like a lot, it isn’t. Ilana seems to think that cruise = vacation, a notion which Jesse can think of no tactful way of dispelling. It’s not that he’s a wimp, or that he hasn’t tried- she simply isn’t showing up or answering her phone.
Plus, it’s not like he’s alone. He’s got his secretary, an old woman named Louisa Mary, who does everything from stapling papers to helping him drink a cup of water, if he asks. She’s endearing, treating him like a grandson, which is embarrassing in front of clients. He’s got his friends, too, who come and hang around the office until he shoos them out.
But Ilana is the person he hired to empty his urine bag, and to feed him, and to make sure he isn’t developing a UTI (oh, God, he hopes he isn’t.)
Jesse is in the middle of recounting this to Dustin and Brian, neither of whom are really listening. The three of them are sitting beside the dragon kiddie pool; Dustin squatting on a child sized bench with a laptop, Jesse reclining in his power wheelchair, and Brian on the flimsy lifeguard’s chair. Brian is keeping an eye out on the preschoolers, who splash and shriek and send droplets of water his way every so often.
Katie is in there, too, and she’s assembled a group of five-year-olds into a military style gang. Looking authoritarian in her frog-print bathing suit, she puts her hands on her skinny little hips. “Okay, everybody!” She announces. “When I say go, you have to all smash the water up like this.” She mimes bringing her palms up from under the surface of the chlorinated water. “One, two, three, go!”
Twelve hands plunge through the water, and the splash that follows resembles a minor atomic bomb explosion.
“Katie!” Brian yells, blinking water out of his eyes. “I said not to do that!”
Katie shrugs, and dunks her head beneath the surface. Six little heads follow her below.
“That kid could run a cult,” Brian mutters.
“There’s a drop on my laptop,” Dustin says, aghast. He wipes frantically at the keyboard. “The chlorine won’t short-circuit the hard drive, will it?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t short-circuited yet,” Brian says, more to himself than anyone else. He has a strong distaste for Dustin, and can tolerate him only when they’ve both had at least two beers.
“Maybe don’t sit so close to the pool,” Jesse says to Dustin. He’s shirtless, and angled towards the sun, in the hope that his chest will go from a paperish white shade to a milky coffee, at the very least. So far, all he’s developed is a blushing cheeks hue, and in fact, can feel a burn coming on. His shirt and undershirt sit in his lap, and a bit of his catheter tube is lurking out of his pants, irking him to no end.
“Why can’t we sit on the deck?” Dustin says, squinting at his screen, which is barely visible.
Brian leans back, stretching his arms over his head. “I’m working, if you haven’t noticed. Jesse is here because the glare from his whitey white chest would blind passersby, so he’s seeking the safe sanctuary of the dragon pool enclosure. As for you, dude, sit wherever the hell you want.”
“Hell is a bad word,” Katie calls from the far side of the pool, where she’s conducting amateur water aerobics.
“Shut up!” Brian calls back. He checks his watch. “Okay, everyone! Out of the pool! It’s three o’clock!”
This is more of a call to the bikini clad moms who sit on the other side of the pool, gossiping and generally ignoring their children. Slowly, reluctantly, they peel themselves off of lawn chairs to collect their kids.
“I should get back to work,” Jesse says, with a weary sigh.
“Finally,” Brian says. He gets up and stretches, then grabs the netted pool cleaner. “Your depressing monologue was putting me to sleep.”
“Hey, Jesse, wait!” Dustin says, leaning forward. “You said you were going to proofread my educational pamphlet!”
“Oh, right.” Jesse picks up his undershirt from his lap, testing his left wrist. It’s still sore and can’t take any pressure yet, but he can bend it without wincing, which is at least something. “You still working on the Portland one?”
“Are you kidding? I finished that two days ago. This is what I’m working on now.” He spins his laptop around with a flourish and angles it so Jesse can see the screen.
Jesse squints. “Your Daughter’s First Period: a Guide for Gay Dads.” He closes his eyes, sighing melodramatically. “I have to proofread that? Lord, take me now.”
“Brilliant, right?” Dustin retrieves his laptop enthusiastically. “Here’s what I’ve got so far: If you are a married man with daughters but have never seen the inside of a vagina, then this educational pamphlet is for you. That’s right. Remember, you are the ‘men’ in menstruation, and it is your responsibility to-”
“Okay, stop,” Brian says. He leans over the edge of the pool, scooping out any little pieces of dirt in the water with the net. “That is wacked. How big of an audience do you think you’ll get for that? Do something more mainstream.”
“Like on different languages,” Jesse suggests. He slides his arms into his undershirt, shimmying it up to his shoulders. “Not that a, uh, period tutorial is a bad idea, but how much do you know about the subject?”
“Like I said. Do something else.” Brian twists around to look at Jesse. “You need help, dude?”
“No.” Jesse’s managed to get the undershirt above his head, and he needs to give one final tug to pull it down. He struggles for a few seconds, his vision reduced to a sheet of stifling white fabric, until someone tugs for him.
Dustin smiles sheepishly. Jesse leans forward and the undershirt settles down over his chest, finishing the job. “I could’ve done it myself,” he says.
“Yeah, but it takes you so long,” Dustin says. Jesse watches Brian for his reaction. As always, his best friend has a disapproving look on his face- it’s subtle, but it’s there. Brian hates that Jesse is helpless, dependent on others for everything. If Brian had his way, Jesse would be in physical therapy for twenty four hours a day, not leaving until he could walk out on his own two feet. Brian wants him to join that new program in New York because he wants his old friend back – the one who hiked and played basketball, the one who raced him on the deck and in the pool.
That part of Jesse is gone. He knows people who say that their disability hasn’t changed them, and he disagrees. His entire life is different – how can he possibly be the same anymore?
They’ve never talked about it, and Jesse wonders if they ever will.
He starts on his button-up. It’s a dark shade of blue, one of the new ones he and Lisa bought in Portland. They haven’t spoken since then, and Jesse suspects that she’s avoiding him. God, why did he have to ruin everything and kiss her?
“Languages,” Dustin says, hopefully considering the idea. “My fiancé speaks French. Brian, do you speak any Chinese?”
“No, you dumb-ass racist. I’m second generation American.” Brian’s maternal grandmother is Japanese, his maternal grandfather is of Irish descent, and his paternal grandparents are African-American, with Native American blood mixed in somewhere along the line. There’s enough variety in Brian’s family to give a geneticist an orgasm.
Brian gets up and locks the yellow gate, flipping over the ‘open’ sign to ‘closed.’ He slips into the water to retrieve anything the kids may have left in there. The water brushes below his waist at its lowest.
“Shit, it’s cold!” Brian bounces from foot to foot. The are four rubber rings on the pool floor, and a rubber duck bouncing along the gently sloshing water.
“Sucks to be you,” Jesse says. He’s got one arm in a sleeve, and he leans forward to start on the other one. Dustin is watching him, which Jesse fervently ignores.
“No, really!” Brian gives an involuntary shiver as he bends down to retrieve the rings. “Ahhh! Damn, you’d think the sun would have warmed up the pool by now!”
Jesse chuckles. “Loser.”
Brian smirks. “You taunting me, boy? You want it that way, huh?” He reaches down and brings a torrent of fast-moving drops in Jesse’s direction, Katie-style.
“Fuck you!” Jesse says, laughing. His undershirt is spotted.
“My laptop!” Dustin cries, clutching it to his chest like it’s a baby.
“Come on, get him back!” Jesse tell Dustin, but Dustin just shrinks back, stumbling over the bench.
“Sorry. I’m already wet. Bam!” Brian says, falling onto his back, but not before showering Jesse with another torrent of water. Jesse backs up, cursing in protest, and Brian climbs out of the pool, bringing half the water with him in the form of his dripping bathing suit. He marches up to Jesse with outstretched arms. “Dude, you need a hug. For your emotional issues, and all that.”
“Brian, get off of me!” Jesse holds his hands in front of his face in poor self defence as Brian practically leaps onto him, smothering him in a wet, icy embrace. “Aw, fuck!” Jesse ducks his head, laughing and yanking an arm around Brian’s neck. Brian scrubs his friend’s hair, and backs off finally, the both of panting and grinning wildly.
Jesse looks up to see Dustin watching them, horrified, standing a safe distance away at the gate.
“Um…” Dustin walks forward slowly. “So are you going to help me?”
Jesse sighs on the inside. Brian’s toweled himself off, and now he’s pulling Jesse’s remaining bare arm into the shirt and deftly buttoning it up. Too weary to argue, Jesse says nothing. He would have needed help with the buttons, anyway.
“Look,” Jesse says to Dustin. “I can help with grammar, that’s all. I know nothing about what periods are like. Just ask any girl you know for details. If you can find a big enough audience for that kind of thing, then go for it.”
“I don’t know who to ask,” Dustin says. His eyes wander to a waitress with a close-shaven head and multiple piercings, who is walking by. “Can’t you ask Lisa?”
She turns. “Ask me what?”
She doesn’t even look at Jesse. She won’t even grant him that. Jesse mentally bashes himself on the head for the umpteenth time that day. You’re such a stupid bustard. You ruined everything.
“Nothing,” Jesse says, eyes boring into her defiantly, as Dustin says, “Please?” in a wheedling tone of voice.
“Fine,” Jesse says. “I’ll text you, Lisa.”
She turns and goes without a word.
Being a waitress allows for countless opportunities for eavesdropping. By the time the rugged cliffs of the Gaspe Peninsula appear in the distance, capped with green and rising up beneath an endless blue sky, Lisa knows all about who is disembarking, embarking, or doing none of the above. Chief among the embarkers are Dustin’s fiancé, and also Jesse’s ex-girlfriend (who was also his previous physical therapist). Lisa can’t decide who she wants to meet first.
It’s Wednesday. When they dock in Gaspésie, Lisa is awestruck by the quiet beauty around her. The landscape is green and dotted with farmhouses, which are scattered among pine trees and roads that look the colour of sand. Mountains rise majestically in the distance, draped in a thick blanket of trees, and Lisa smells what she can only put into words as ‘the country,’ a smell that is tranquillity and open air and cold, cricket-filled nights.
She is frantically busy for the next three hours- the new passengers are many, excited and hungry for lunch. The regulars in the Roman dining hall want their fettuccine alfredo and soupe de jour too, so Lisa doesn’t have a moment to think as she juggles orders and drinks and platters of steaming food. When her break finally comes, she’s starving and she needs the bathroom badly, and there are sweat spots under her arms from the humidity. She doesn’t know where to start.
She’s clipping her way through the Roman, still in waitress mode but on the way to a cold, midday shower, when she sees her.
She must be famous. That’s Lisa’s first thought. People so beautiful don’t exist in real, tangible life, only as airbrushed images on the cover of gossip magazines. She’s holding a small Gucci handbag, and there are three of Dustin’s friends trailing behind her, carrying suitcases of various sizes and brand names. They are the parody of a litter of salivating, panting puppies that will do anything for a treat.
The woman looks like she’s in her early twenties, and she’s wearing a lacy top and jean shorts that show off her long, freckled legs and great butt (a fact Dustin’s friends must have noticed, since they are strategically positioned behind her.) Her hair is in a purposely-messy fishtail, the kind that would make any decent hairstylist jealous.
Lisa has dated a girl before, an experience she probably won’t repeat, but damn, she knows sexy when she sees it. She wonders if this girl is Dustin’s fiancé. If so, they are going to make some fine babies.
“Thank you, loves,” she says to the guys dragging her luggage. Her words are breathy and tinted with the slightest French Canadian accent. She kisses them each on the cheek, and Lisa can almost swear that all of them are getting erections. They stumble away, dazed, as the woman walks up to Lisa.
“Excusez-moi. Où pouvais-je trouver un gars par le nom de Jesse Alvaro?” She says, pulling out her iPhone and looking down. Her eyelashes are long and thick.
“Oh.” The woman laughs, and the sound that comes out is a loud honk. Nobody’s perfect, Lisa guesses.
“I keep forgetting that this is an American cruise,” the woman says. She’s talking to Lisa and texting at the same time. It’s impressive. “Where can I find a guy named Jesse Alvaro?”
“You know him?”
The woman glances up, surprised, as if she’s suddenly realized that Lisa is a person. “Do you know him?”
Lisa can’t help but feeling intimidated, for some reason, and so she dislikes this girl immediately. She stands up straighter and says, “yes, yes I do.”
The woman does the snob thing: raised eyebrow, flared nostrils, curled lips. “Is he paying you to screw him, or is it the other way around?”
“Hey hey hey, it’s Ruby Mitchell-Kim!” Brian’s elated voice floats over from the other side of the room. Lisa watches as the woman turns towards him.
“It’s the Sexy Bitch here, motherfucker!” She crows, as Brian sweeps her up and twirls her around. Ruby squeals, and kisses Brian on both cheeks. He finally sets her down as Jesse approaches them, wearing a forced smile that doesn’t hide the frown lines between his eyebrows. Ruby doesn’t seem to notice. She parks herself onto his lap and adjusts his collar, talking animatedly with one hand ruffling his hair and the other laced between his fingers.
Lisa busies herself stacking menus, but she’s trapped- the Roman’s exit is past Ruby and the group of guys that are swarming around her like bugs to a lightbulb.
Her fears are fulfilled when Brian calls her over. She drags herself from the counter reluctantly and gives Ruby a barebones smile.
So this is the kind of girl Jesse dates. That explains a lot.
“This is Lisa,” Brian says. “She’s the bomb. Girl can make a wicked blueberry muffin, I can tell you that.”
Lisa titters nervously. “No, I only serve the foo-”
“You’ve never been into employees,” Ruby says, reaching up and running her fingers down Brain’s bicep, her eyes crinkling like she’s said something hilarious.
“We are employees, Ruby.” Jesse sounds bored. Ruby is still attached to his lap. “And you’re my employee, so I wouldn’t go there.”
“Jesse, baby. Don’t be a grump. You’ll scare the poor girl away.” Ruby feels around the top of Jesse’s thigh, and he swats her hand away. “Stop it,” he hisses.
“What? I haven’t changed your leg bag in a year, lovah! I haven’t forgotten your schedule. Unless you’ve changed it since last summer.”
Did just call him lover? That had better be slang.
“Fuck off,” Jesse mutters, and this prompts Ruby into a fit of giggles. “God, I’ve missed you!”
Lisa watches the exchange, and can think of nothing intelligent to say. She feels like she’s intruding on the reunion of old friends, which is exactly what this is. She stands to the side of Jesse’s wheelchair, and he keeps glancing up at her, as if searching for her approval. And oh, does Ruby notice that.
“What happened to your hair?” She says. “Are you, like, one of those butch lesbians, or what?”
“Actually,” Lisa says, tugging at her uniform collar, “I have a rare illness in which the ends of my hair give me electronic shocks every so often. That’s why I had to shave my head.”
“She’s really brave about it,” Jesse adds, straight-faced.
Ruby seems to consider this. The amount of bodies around Lisa is making her feel claustrophobic, and the more she looks the more she realizes how out of place she is.
For all of these people- Jesse included- spending the summer on a cruise is the norm, and so is designer clothing, a second home in the mountains, and a ten day bachelor party with thirty-five friends.
And she’s the waitress here. As if reading her mind, Ruby flips her braid over her shoulder and says, “um, could we get something to eat here? Do you guys still serve that mango salad with the vinaigrette?”
Everyone remembers that they’re in a place of food, and the orders start flying.
“Let me write that down,” Lisa says, pulling out her notepad.
As always, the party truly starts when Ruby Mitchell-Kim arrives. Brian is hyper and jumpy the entire morning, which makes Jesse become, well… the opposite of that.
At lunch, Brian bounds into Jesse’s office. Ilana hasn’t shown up yet, but Louisa Mary, his secretary, has set up a bowl of soup for him. He is clumsily slurping it with his special utensils, which are regular cutlery but with fat blue handles.
“Hey,” Brian says, breathless. His dark hair is slicked back, still wet from the pool, and behind his opened shirt lies a toned and bronzed chest, the epitome of the youthful dream. Frankly, Jesse is jealous. Before his accident, he was always the stronger, taller, fitter one.
“Dude,” Jesse says. He eats a spoonful of soup.
“So listen,” Brian says. “A bunch of the guys are heading out to the basketball court for a match, so if you want to-“
“Oh, do I want to sit on the side, and chat with Ruby about what a douchebag her current boyfriend is?” Jesse shrugs. “No, I’m good, thanks.”
“Whoah.” Brian sinks into the chair opposite Jesse’s desk, which gives a view of the ocean. “What’s up your ass today?”
“Nothing. I just got funner things to do, like occupational therapy and filling out tax receipts.”
Brian stares at him for a while. Then he says, “you know, the rehab place in New York has a rugby team for quadriplegics.”
“Good to know,” Jesse says in a monotone. He takes a spoon of soup. It’s mushroom-barley, and it’s warm and spicy.
Brian shakes his head, and leaves the office. Jesse pulls his phone, which is further away on the desk, toward himself.
I’m really sorry about today.
(message sent at 1:37 pm)
He watches the screen, and waits. His office is big, but it has nothing but a desk, two padded chairs for customers, and two potted plants at the door. The rest of the floor is bare so that he has space to move around, which is usually a blessing, but now seems to mock him. The gleaming floorboards and slowly rotating ceiling fan, the giant abstract paintings he bought last year in Quebec City- this is what he is. He’s supposedly the success story; the disabled man who is living life, going to school and beginning a successful career, surrounded by friends and family.
But there is something missing from the picture. He’s still crippled. His body is broken. And he doesn’t know if he’s capable of loving, or being loved, being part of the bond between two bodies and minds.
His phone buzzes.
Lisa: i don’t know what yr talking abt.
Jesse: Well, you met Ruby. She can be nasty.
Lisa: didnt u two date?
you wanted to ask me something?
Jesse: Yeah, but not over text. We should talk. Meet me tonight?
That night, there is a dinner pool party. The way this works is that tables and a buffet are set up on the deck outside the indoor pool, and the usual sliding glass doors between the two are pushed aside. It turns out that Ilana is the one who nudges Jesse into going, even volunteering to come with him. By the time Brian, Dustin, Ruby and five other people show up to his room, Jesse is ready.
“I can take it from here,” Brian tells Ilana. When they get there, the wall of the deck is crisscrossed with white Christmas lights, and a bar is set up in the corner. On this part of the ship, the deck is multilayered, with the buffet tables set on platforms accessible by way of two or three steps. More steps lead to a jacuzzi and to the railing. The front of the steps are illuminated as well, and in the nearing darkness the glow is mesmerizing. Jesse remembers when the Sierra won some kind of fancy architectural award for this deck, which was named the ‘Vacationers ultimate paradise’ in a design magazine. More like the quadriplegic’s ultimate nightmare.
The pool is fuller than the deck, since most people elect to swim before they feast on shish kebabs and hamburgers. Jesse socializes with Dustin’s friends on the deck for a while, but the entire time he’s looking for Lisa, until he realizes that she works until eight tonight. And it’s only seven, so if she’s here, it’s as a worker.
As the deck empties out from the preliminary who’s-who chitchatting, Jesse goes inside. Brian accompanies him to the side of the pool, where he lays a towel out on the bench and unhooks Jesse’s seatbelt. Alone in their corner, the silence between them is suffocating compared the easy banter minutes before. Brian lifts Jesse out of his chair and sets him down carefully. He rolls him to the side, pulling Jesse’s pants below his hips, repeats for the other side, and then slides them off with the efficiency of someone who’s done this before. He adjusts Jesse’s bathing suit, and pulls off his socks.
Brian frowns. “What’s this?” he says, motioning to something Jesse can’t see. He pulls Jesse into a sitting position, and points to the blooming bruise on his ankle.
“Oh my God, Jesse!” Ruby gasps, appearing from behind him, achingly sexy in one of those dental floss bikinis that might disappear if you blow too hard. She tsk-tsks over his ankle, and soon, the three of them are falling into a familiar pattern. Brian condemns Ilana for her carelessness, Jesse rolls his eyes and insists that he’s fine, he can take of himself, and it’s not a big deal. Ruby is giving her entitled opinion and ignoring Jesse’s, while also leaning over him to unbutton his shirt, her breasts inches from his face. Her perfume is sweet and it wakes up the man-beast in Jesse’s head, the one that goes ding-ding-ding FEMALE ALERT.
His penis doesn’t react, but it definitely would have three years ago.
Brian hoists Jesse into his arms, and Ruby frets over him, folding his hands in his lap and brushing the hair from his forehead. Suddenly this moment in time is superimposed with one from last year, one identical to this one except for the time stamp beneath it. It was him, Brian, and Ruby back then, and it felt like they had forever. If only Jesse knew.
Dating Ruby had been so easy, at first. It wasn’t a difficult transition like it is for many people who date their employees. She was already a familiar face to him, because she’d been one of his primary physical and occupational therapists from day one. Ruby Mitchell-Kim was the type of girl who’d kiss his cheek just to see it go aflame, just so she could laugh and kiss him again. She was the one who had blurred the line between therapist and friend, so that Jesse was in a constant state of confusion and wonder over her, never knowing where he stood.
When he had chosen a team of attendants and carers to come with him aboard the Sierra last year, Ruby had been an obvious choice. He had close to no mobility then, way less than he has now. He had to be monitored all the time.
Jesse watches Ruby thoughtfully. She walks a step or two in front of him and Brian, clutching an inflated headrest to support Jesse’s neck in the water. She goes down the steps to the pool and from her sigh of pleasure, Jesse can tell the water is warm. With hazy eyes he sees wet, slippery hands lowering him into the pool. Ruby holds him against her as Brian slips the headrest beneath him, and then they let go carefully, gently, leaving Jesse to propel himself with his arms.
The ceiling of the indoor pool is strung with festive little flags threaded onto cord that extend over the entire room. The acoustics are better here than in the theatre, and every splash or shout is amplified ten times over.
A half hour of messing around in the shallow end passes quickly. Jesse lies on his back, and Brian and Ruby hover over him protectively, even coming to his rescue when he tips over and dips beneath the surface. It all seems so natural, so comfortable. At one point Ruby stands him up, grasping him under his arms, laughing while she says, “finally, we get to dance!” And if Jesse closes his eyes, he can picture how this night last year played out, how she cupped his head and raised it to her lips, held his limp hand and told him that she loved him.
Of course, it takes Jesse less than a second to remember why things are different now, why Ruby’s only stroking his hair absentmindedly while she flirts with the lifeguard.
Always the daredevil, he starts to paddle away.
By now the pool is nearly empty. Brian is showing off in the deep end, and now he sloshes over to Jesse, shooing Ruby away.
“It’s party time,” Brian says. They both watch Ruby climb out off the pool and shiver in the cold evening air that has found its way inside.
“Just warn me before you have your twelfth beer so that I’ll know to back off,” Jesse says, propelling himself around in a slow circle.
“Hilarious.” Brian flicks water at Jesse’s face. He yawns and leans his elbows over the rim of the pool. Jerking his chin in Ruby’s direction, he says, “You miss her? Like, as a girlfriend?”
“Nah.” Jesse’s face is almost directly below Brian’s; it’s an awkward angle, and he can see up his friend’s nose. He backs away a bit.
“You miss sleeping with her?” he says.
Brian is silent, and Jesse can see his chest rise and fall.
“That was nasty,” Brian says.
“Sorry. I guess it was on my mind.”
“Uh-huh. Shall we now point out all your faults, too?”
“God, Brian. My filter slipped there for a second. Chill out.”
Brian crouches in the water so that he’s eye to eye with Jesse. Jesse stares straight up.
“Don’t you think I know,” Brian says, right into Jesse’s waterlogged ear, “that I do stupid things when I’m wasted?”
“Oh, you mean like sleeping with my girlfriend, or spraining my arm?”
“At least I’m only an ass when I’m drunk.”
Jesse flinches. He’s got enough strength to give Brian a decent splash in the face, but this conversation has gone beyond that. The water around them is perfectly still.
“Don’t I have good reason to be one?” Jesse says.
“Why don’t you want to come to New York with me?”
“What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”
Brian folds his arms. “Just answer.”
“Dude. You don’t really want me to come, do you?” Jesse struggles to tilt himself into an upright position, but after flailing for a couple of seconds, he gives up and settles for a steep recline.
“You hate this,” he says, looking Brian in the eye, catching the flicker of guilt there. “You hate that I’m helpless, and you hate that I can’t do any of the stuff we used to do. You hate when people call you my boyfriend, even as a joke. You hate me in this body.”
Brian lowers his eyes, then lifts them. His face is lined and tight with anger. “So what if that’s true?” he says quietly, as if he’s saying things that he’s kept hidden a long, long time. “You think I’m brimming with happiness because you’re in a fucking wheelchair? And honestly, dude, neither are you. You’re moody all the time. You’re scared to tell Lisa you think she’s fucking awesome, because you’re scared of rejection. You’re a wimp.” He breathes out in a huff. “I just wish we could change things, you know? You could get better. Come with me and maybe you’ll-”
“And what if I don’t?” Jesse shoots back. “Okay, what if I don’t get out my wheelchair?”
“What if I don’t?” Jesse’s voice rings out to ceiling. “You know I might not.”
He doesn’t have to finish the sentence. Brian is a guy of action, and he’s got little patience. Either Jesse walks, or bust. He isn’t going to stick around forever. And if this fancy rehab centre doesn’t cure Jesse, there will be no reason left for him to stay.
Brian says it, and that’s that- he ends the conversation by lifting Jesse’s head to remove the headrest there.
Around them, people are pulling on zip-ups or little skirts over their bathing suits, and heading outside to eat. The dress code for this party isn’t black tie, apparently.
Brian carries Jesse into the changing room, grabbing a towel first. He sets Jesse down on the floor, and holds him in a sitting position as he spreads out the towel beneath him.
Brian leaves to get their clothes and Jesse’s wheelchair. The changing room is empty, and suffocatingly small; just two rows of dingy gray lockers and a bench between them. The clock reads seven-thirty, and shit, he told Lisa to meet him now.
He hears voices outside the open door: two female voices, an adult and a child. Lisa’s punctual, he can give her that. Who’s the other girl? Katie, maybe?
Someone knocks on the door. Lisa pops her head in.
“Oh!” She says, obviously not expecting to see Jesse lying on the floor in an empty changing room. She coughs. “Um, I just ran into Katie here and she’s looking for Brian… Have you seen him?”
“He should be out there,” Jesse says. Katie squirms her way inside, and waves at Jesse.
“It’s past my bedtime,” she tells him proudly. Then, “you’re dripping on the floor, Jesse.”
Lisa takes a towel from the bench. “May I?” She crouches and begins to rubs him dry. Jesse inhales. He shivers involuntary, and as she lifts his leg to towel it off, he begins to spasm violently.
Lisa gasps, towel poised midair. His legs slap against the tiles, and against his will a low sound escapes from behind his teeth, a guttural sound of pain and fuck this and shame so bright it outshines everything else.
Lisa pauses for only a second before she throws herself against him, holding him down with the force of her weight.
“Stop,” she whispers, hysteria making her voice wobble, though they both know he can’t stop. The spasm ebbs and Jesse’s head jerks upwards and then bangs against the floor, and through his panting and watering eyes he sees Katie, her eyes giant saucers, her face frozen in an expression of horror.
Brian appears behind his sister, and he looks like he’s at a loss for words for the first time in his life.
“Get out,” Jesse says hoarsely to Lisa. “P- please. Get out, please.”
Trembling, she lets go, and when she stands up he sees that she’s wet all down her t-shirt and jeans.
She takes Katie’s hand and leads her away, and Brian sighs and shuts the door behind them. Jesse’s head begins to throb like a heartbeat.
When there’s a weak knock on the door, Lisa turns over in bed and lets Allison, her roommate, answer it. One of her ears is pressed against the pillow and the other is smothered beneath her blanket. She can still hear the conversation clearly.
Yeah, it’s him. She figured he’d come.
“Do you need help with something?” Allison says.
Lisa knows that Jesse hate when people assume that, which they do, all the time. Her heart pangs for him, but she ignores the feeling and burrows herself deeper in her blissful land of down feathers and linen.
“No, believe it or not. I’m here to see Lisa.”
“Oh, okay, well we have policies about staff privacy, so I suggest waiting till-”
“I work here, too. Customer relations department.”
Another thing she knows he hates- when people assume he can’t possibly hold up a job in his condition.
What the hell. Lisa tosses off the covers and swings herself around to face him, and wouldn’t you know it, his face lights up like a TV screen.
“There are also policies about relationships between employees,” Allison points out timidly, but Jesse shoots her a look so harsh that she mutters about doing something somewhere else, and scuttles quickly out of the room.
Jesse rolls inside, pushing the door closed with the back of his wheelchair. His hair is damp, and he’s wearing an uncharacteristic Coca-Cola t-shirt. Lisa notices the scar on his neck for the first time, and it dawns on her why he always wears such high-necked shirts.
“Hey,” he says, with the shy grin that was the first thing to reel her in. Suddenly Lisa feels tired, not from physical exhaustion, but because Jesse has made her love him and hate him and frankly, she has no strength right now for the emotional heartache.
“About before-” he starts, but she cuts him off.
“I know what that was,” Lisa says. She doesn’t smile. “A muscle spasm. Dr. Google told me.”
“Ah.” Jesse seems caught unaware. He must have planned a speech. “Did he tell you anything else?”
Lisa fingers her blanket, and shifts uncomfortably. “He said that… Sometimes people with disabilities have a hard time believing they can be intimate again. On the other hand, my human sources tell me that you and Ruby had quite the hot relationship, which is confusing.”
“Maybe Google knows something about that, too.” Jesse raises an eyebrow. He looks at his lap. “Maybe we should talk, Lisa.”
“Maybe I don’t want to talk.” Lisa squirms. “You wanted to ask me something?”
“You’re gonna laugh.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
“I’m helping Dustin with research for his latest educational pamphlet. It’s a tutorial on how to teach your daughter about menstruation.”
Well. That was the last thing on earth Lisa expected to hear. She heaves herself off her bed and fishes underneath it, grabbing at shoes and a paperback novel and- hey, that’s where her mascara went- until she brushes against a plastic shopping bag. She stands up and dumps the contents on her bed. A jumble of tampons of all sizes and the odd pad or liner come bouncing out onto her mattress.
She picks up a tampon first. Jesse already looks mildly uncomfortable, and she’s only getting started. “Okay, this one, you shove up your ass- well, technically not your ass, but you get what I’m saying.” She pulls the string on one of them and the tampon pops out. “As you can see, it’s shaped like a tea bag that soaks up blood, instead of tea.”
“Here, take a free sample.” Lisa tosses it into his lap. She picks up a pad. “These are the worst. I usually only wear them on the last days, when I’m spotting.”
“Lisa, shut up for a second.”
“If you want my opinion, pads shouldn’t be legal. It’s bad enough we need to bleed out and have cramps for a week, but to wear these things that feel like diapers-”
Oh, shit. Lisa feels the blood drain from her face.
Jesse cracks his neck from side to side, and it’s a few seconds before he says anything. “I didn’t know you knew about that. That’s… huh. That’s…”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. There is absolutely nothing she can say to take that back. She ducks her shoulders and sinks onto her bed.
“It’s no big deal,” she mumbles, wanting to die so, so, badly.
And after so many days of composed calmness, Jesse breaks. He just completely breaks. Lisa watches him turn red and even though she told herself she doesn't care, she does.
“It is a big deal,” he says, his eyes sending venom at her. “It is. I’m twenty one years old and I got people washing me and feeding me and yes, changing my diaper. Because I have accidents sometimes. So don’t tell me it isn’t a big deal.”
Lisa pops out another tampon. She’s hidden in the shadow of the bunk bed, and she hopes he can’t see her hands trembling.
“I like you,” he says. She isn’t looking at him anymore. “I like you a lot. But you don’t want this, Lisa. You don’t know what it’s like dating a guy like me.”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t,” she says. “Because you’re afraid of me, Jesse. You’re afraid that if you get too close, I’ll snap and push you away. You’re wallowing so deep in your own bruised ego that you think I’m the crazy one for wanting you.”
“Don’t tell me what I think,” Jesse says.
“I just did. And you know what? I’m sick of you.” Her eyes find his. “Like you said to me before. Get out. Please. And don’t talk to me again.”