Lies, All Lies
Lisa fixes the guy in front of her with a withered look. “It was a shark accident.” She touches the back of her buzzed head and winces, adding to the effect. “Last year, off the coast of my beach house in La Punto, Peru. I was… jet skiing, and I fell back and then this shark chomped the back of my head. He barely missed my brain, but I had to wear a helmet for the next few months until my skull grew back.”
Lisa checks his face to see if she’s gone to far, if he’s throwing back his hands all like, whoa there girl, you’re pulling my leg.
That isn’t happening. The guy’s nodding wisely, sympathetically, scrutinizing the blond fuzz Lisa passes as hair for scars.
She sighs a little on the inside. Okay, when she signed up for a waitressing job on a cruise ship, obviously she anticipated that there might be a little flirting going on. Maybe the cook would be cute and they’d make out in the pantry. Maybe she’d meet a kind stranger with old money, and it would be love at first sight as she served him his eggs Benedict. But this is pathetic. Yeah, the guy in front of her is hot shit, with tousled hair and razor sharp cheekbones and piercing blue eyes you could drown and die in, all that good stuff. But he’s as dull as a rock.
She discreetly scratches the back of her neck, because the tag of her starched uniform blouse is itchy, and looks up, hoping for an escape. There is too much white around here: her uniform, the walls, hot-shit guy’s pants. For someone who has worn exclusively black her entire adolescent life, and painted her room the same, the color white hurts her eyes a bit.
She is nineteen years old, and this is her second time out of New Hampshire. Her uncle is the CEO of DreamWave Tours Inc. All that means is her father got the non-tycoon genes, more comfortable around books than money. It also means that she gets three hundred dollars in the mail every Christmas, and now, this job on the New England Tour aboard the Sierra.
It’s eleven at night, she is exhausted beyond reason, and she’s taken on three night shifts a week, because why? Lisa can think of no good reason. The upper deck is filled with too many bodies and too-loud music. The tables have mostly been cleared from the main deck, but the are a few still set up by the water. Someone has ordered fillet minion, and although dinner was at six, these people are paying six grand a week each to keep their asses on this cruise. Exceptions are made. Supposedly, Lisa is meant to be serving drinks now.
The hot-shit guy leans back against the shiny white wall between the deck and the indoor Roman dining hall. “Was there a lot of blood?” He runs his tongue over his teeth, which are worthy of being in a Crest commercial, and winks. He may as well have said, Wanna get it on under the table over there?
“Plenty,” Lisa says. She wants to ditch this fellow so, so badly. “I almost passed out because of the sheer amount of it. They told me later on that they found a piece of my skull stuck in the shark’s teeth.”
There is a yell from on the deck, around the corner from the Roman dining hall. Lisa suspects it’s coming from the bachelor party group. Most of the people on the deck are part of the middle-aged crowd, the ones young enough to be up past eight, but old enough to want the music ‘toned down.’
Swearing comes from at least three different voices. Lisa is suddenly very needed. Thank the Lord.
“Um, I have to get going,” Lisa says. “I’ll come find you afterwards."
Lies, all lies.
“Jesse, come on, bro. Show us some of those abs.” Brian is drunk, but not drunk enough to be puking over the rails and into the ocean. That will come later.
Jesse backs away as fast as he can, and the back of his wheelchair bumps into something, probably the stairs that lead to the upper deck. He hears a woman’s squeal, and then the sound of high heels clanging angrily down the stairs.
Brian snorts louder, his version of a laugh, and Jesse pivots to see an older woman with a fake tan and perky boobs (also fake.) Her white dress is so low-cut that he can see her entire sun-spotted chest. There is also the matter of the wine stain running down the front.
For a second he holds her gaze, her on the last stair with an almost empty wineglass, ready to scream at the drunk guys shaking the stairs. Him in his power chair, spindly arms and creepy hands bent all wrong.
Her mouth hangs open. He’s used to that- lots of the rich people aboard the Sierra are very sheltered, never having interacted with anyone besides their loaded friends. Obviously none of this woman’s fellow country club members are quadriplegics.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, expelling a gasp and a heartfelt apology at once.
Jesse feels his face getting hot. She’s sorry? He spilled wine on her! God, he hates people so fucking much sometimes. “No, no I’m sorry,” he says, trying to sound as normal and as non-apology-worthy as possible. Brian snorts again, having found something funny in his little alcohol haze of a world.
“It’s okay,” the woman says, her face crumpling a little because her thousand dollar dress is ruined and because of the poor, poor man in the wheelchair. Then she runs off as fast as she can, her wrinkled arms jiggling as she goes.
Jesse turns to face Brian, who’s cracking open another beer. Compared to the hard stuff he’s already drunk tonight, a Coors Light is like a bottle of water for him.
“Did you see that?” Jesse demands. He shifts in his chair, the smell of sea spray and booze hitting him in the face. “Apologizing to me. God, I hate when people do that.”
“Little bang to the ol’ ego, huh?” Brian takes a swig, and pounds Jesse on the shoulder, hard. A little too hard. Sometimes he forgets how easily breakable Jesse’s thin-as-sticks arms are. He’s the lifeguard on the Sierra, and he’s been doing aqua therapy with Jesse for the past couple of years. They’ve known each other since they were kids. Jesse’s aunt is married to the CEO of DreamWave Cruises Inc., and he’s been on this cruise every summer since he was eight. So has Brian, since his mom is the cook. They’re good friends. Brian is actually a pretty decent guy when he’s sober.
After Jesse’s accident, Brian disappeared from his life. He didn’t call, didn’t text, and he didn’t make the hour drive from New Jersey to Delaware on his Thanksgiving break, like he’s done every year previously. He miraculously reappeared in Jesse’s life sometime after Jesse’s eight months of outpatient rehab, and he’s been there ever since.
After that, Brian’s acted like nothing’s changed. He’ll do therapy with Jesse and he’s changed his urine bag more than once, but he won’t discuss the gap in their friendship, ever. Now, it hangs between them like a thick piece of plastic wrap, pushing them apart in the most subtle of ways.
“Come on,” Brian says. “Show the guys how ripped you are.”
Jesse rolls his eyes. Then there’s this. The kidding around Brian does. He loves it, usually, because everyone else in his life thinks he’s lost his sense of humour along with the use of his limbs. Only Brian isn’t scared to make fun of him.
Except now, Brian is drunk, and he’s garnered the attention of the bachelor party guys. Things are a little different.
“My buddy Jesse’s got a six pack,” Brian brags to the nearest listening ears. He stumbles, holding onto Jesse’s armrest. His beer tilts at an alarming angle. The lights are bright and yellow on the deck, and people dance and mill around servers who hand out drinks and shish-kebabs like this is a wedding reception or something.
“Yeah?” one of the guys says. He’s obviously the alpha male of this pack, probably the groom or the best man. He stares at Jesse curiously. “I saw this dude on YouTube who was in a wheelchair and also like, a fucking bodybuilder. Muscles on his muscles, all that shit.”
“He’s kidding,” Jesse murmurs. He’s got no muscles to speak of. He backs into the shadow of the dining hall, where the lights don’t reach, and thinks how it’s high time for Brian to stop drinking and get some sleep. He doesn’t care if it’s barely eleven.
Brian laughs again. “Give us a peek,” he says, grinning like a maniac. His eyes are wild and his normally gelled black hair flops into his face. He grabs a fistful of Jesse’s shirt and yanks it upward, exposing pale, flat chest.
One of the bachelor guys pulls Brian back by the shoulder. “Hey. You’re sick, man. Leave him alone.”
Jesse tries to move back, but there are too many people crowding him, elbows and hands and someone’s crotch leaning over him and reeking of alcohol and cologne, blocking the light.
“Get off of me!” Brian hasn’t let go, even though there are two guys pulling him away from Jesse.
Glass shatters, and Jesse catches hungry glimmers in the eyes of these cultured people who are just kids in the schoolyard in adult bodies, thirsting like vultures for a good fight.
Brian is screaming, “Show them how strong you are, Jesse!” He’s got two fists in Jesse’s t-shirt. Someone tries to shove him and Jesse can’t breathe with everyone in his face and he tries to raise his voice over the shouting, and he tells Brian to get the fuck off and tells the guys to mind their own business and then Brian is being dragged backwards and he’s pulling Jesse with him.
Jesse sails through the air, sails, sails, the panic and fear ramming into him before he touches the ground and then he does, cheek on the cold hard floor, a spark of pain when he hits. His arm.
It’s quiet, after. Brian is picking himself off the floor and the guys are hovering. Jesse’s arm and all the places he can still feel are singing in pain.
“You okay?” Alpha Male squats and peers at his face. Jesse stares at his designer sneakers. He’s on his back, sprawled with one throbbing hand underneath him.
“I’m fine,” Jesse says. “I’m fine.”
“I’m sorry, man, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t tell me you’re fucking sorry.” Why must people always apologize? “Get the hell away from me.”
Alpha Male hesitates. The shoes of his posse are all behind him, and Jesse sees them all sideways, only the shoes.
He can’t move his head. “Get the hell away!” he yells.
They listen. The fucking bastards clear out, scared like that old woman, and it occurs to Jesse that he’s sworn today more then he has since rehab.
Brian sits up and vomits in his own lap.
Lisa likes the old people on the cruise. Sometimes they complain that there aren’t enough Keurig capsules in their Master Deluxe Suite or that today’s special was meant to be squash soup, not French onion, but generally, they are easy to deal with. Easy to placate.
What Lisa hates are the young people. This can range from barely-past-puberty to her age to thirty. They’re the ones that cause all the trouble.
Like now. Everyone’s been dancing and getting drunk on the deck since nine, which is fine, but come on. This ain’t a bar, people. The noise comes from a group of guys, mostly in their early twenties, throwing around an Asian dude who’s obviously wasted. They’re crowded around something, which she can’t see very well, because there must be a light burnt out somewhere.
Next thing she knows, there are two figures hurling toward the ground.
She bites her lip. Her supervisor said to call security if any passengers get too rowdy. All at once though, the crowd parts, and all that is left is the wasted guy, moaning on the floor and then throwing up all over himself. Another man is sprawled out on his stomach beside him.
“Is everything alright here?” Lisa asks loudly, announcing her presence. Wasted Guy stands up shakily, wiping his mouth across his sleeve, congealed vomit on his shirt. Lisa’s stomach churns.
“Are you hurt, sir?” Lisa gingerly approaches the guy lying on the floor. He’s moving his arm, so he isn’t unconscious.
“I don’t think so,” he says.
She tries hard to keep the professional edge in her voice. “Then I’m going to ask you to please stand up.”
He doesn’t answer.
“Jesus, Christ, Jesse. I’m in trouble now, huh?” Wasted guy teeters over to the guy on the floor- Jesse- and drops onto the ground, onto his knees. He hooks his arms under Jesse’s armpits, hauling him into a seating position.
Jesse’s gaze meets hers and she sees a beautiful, olive-toned face and dark eyes, eyes that fill with anger and shame, of all things, eyes that drop when they see her. Lisa sees the wheelchair hiding in the shadows behind the two men and the picture starts to fall into place.
Her reaction is instantaneous. “Sir-”
“Jesus, stop calling me that! It’s Brian.” Brian grunts as he scoots Jesse forward, Jesse’s frame slumping forward into Brian’s unsteady embrace. Brian’s grip looks tenuous at best, and Lisa’s mind begins to fill with panic. Passengers chatter and glasses clink behind them, but here, in this corner, they are alone. Lisa wants to call someone, anyone, but she can’t leave Jesse with this man.
“Let me help,” She says, lowering herself onto one knee behind Jesse.
“Get the fuck away,” Brian mutters. “Me and my man Jesse here are fine. You can just fuck off. Ma’am.” He totters and Jesse shifts unsteadily against his chest.
“Brian.” Jesse speaks calmly, slowly, a guy who knows he’s in the hands on an intoxicated man. His chin rests against Brian’s shoulder. “I don’t think you should do this. Call Ilana.”
“I can help,” Lisa repeats. They both ignore her.
“Let’s get you back up.” Brian pulls Jesse in no apparent direction and stumbles, and Lisa catches his bony body from behind, almost by instinct. He slumps back against her.
“Jesse, I…” Brian looks down at his empty arms, almost in surprise. His eyes are clearly bloodshot now that Lisa has a good view of them. “I…” his mouth hangs open and he moans, then lets out a sob. “I’m sorry man, I…”
“Brian, listen to me.” Lisa feels the rumble of Jesse’s words against her chest. She stares up, at the overhang of the dining hall, feeling like she’s intruding on something very personal.
“Go get Ilana, ” Jesse says. "And then go lie down or something."
Brian hiccups, and nods, standing up and stumbling away.
Lisa is suddenly aware of the warm body against hers. He sighs deeply and she feels his shoulders rise and fall. She waits a couple of painful seconds. Her legs are folded beneath her and are starting to tingle from the weight. Aren't you not meant to move someone who’s fallen? Especially someone who can’t feel anything? It’s a bit late to realize this, since Jesse’s been moved already… Can you break your neck twice?
“Hi,” she says, almost imperceptibly, since she’s speaking right into his ear. Her arms are wrapped around him and she isn’t sure if she should move them, if he’ll slide to the ground if she does.
“Hi,” he says, matter-of-factly, like they’re at a business meeting.
Which they kind of are. This is business. Customer service. She puts her work voice back on. “Can you tell me what to do?” She says.
“Oh. Yeah, I don’t think Brian is coming back.” He clears his throat. “Can you call my… Can you call someone for me?”
“I don’t have my cell here. Should we ask someone here to help us?” Wow, she’s not sure where the ‘us’ came from.
“N- no. Please.” She can’t see him, but she can feel his discomfort.
“Okay. Um, come around so you’re facing me.”
Lisa grips his shoulders tightly and maneuvers herself so she’s facing him. His body is soft, his back hunched. She’s relieved to see that he can hold up his head in his own. The shadows make the angles of his face sharp, one of his eyes completely obscured by the darkness. They both laugh nervously, two strangers in an intimate place.
Not for Jesse, Lisa realizes. He probably has people handling him, holding him and touching him all the time. She wonders if he’s become desensitized to the sexual pleasure of human touch, and the thought makes her horribly sad.
“Are you strong?” Jesse says with forced chipper. He’s wearing a loose shirt, and his collarbones jut out sharply against the rest of his skin.
“Yes,” she says indignantly, and a hint of a smile forms on his face.
“I’m going to put my arms around you,” he says. “Position your hands under my thighs and brace me against you, and lift. Is my chair behind me?”
Lisa squints in the darkness. “Uh, yes. Roughly.”
“Okay.” He wraps his arms around her neck, and Lisa smells his shampoo and his sweat as his cheek momentarily brushes hers. She tries not to forget that she is an employee on the Sierra, just doing her job. Her fingers worm their way beneath him until both her hands have a firm grip underneath his lap, and she counts down, “Three, two, one…”
Jesse lets out a yelp of pain and she lowers him quickly, her back straining. He drops his hands and grimaces. “I must have done something to my arm when I fell.”
Lisa glances behind her. “Well. Let’s do it another way.”
He closes his eyes and his Adam’s apple bobs up and down. Offering no further instructions, he pulls his knees to his chest with only his right arm. Lisa notices that his fingers are curled inwards.
She puts one hand under his knees and another around his back. It takes two tries but she manages to lift him into his wheelchair. She almost misses, and his butt teeters forward. Sweating from the excursion, she reaches behind his back and tugs at his jeans to scoot him onto the seat. She touches something crinkly. He’s wearing a diaper.
She steps back as he positions his legs into the footrests, clumsily and using only one arm.
Lisa spins around and a large woman a head taller and twice as wide as she is stands there, hands on her hips, cornrows falling over her shoulders.
“Ilana,” Jesse says weakly.
Lisa steps back until she is mingling with the crowd, his smell and his eyes, sad eyes, imprinted like an afterimage in her brain. Her heart pounding, she heads to the kitchen to get orders.
The conversations in the City Lights Steakhouse, one of the Sierra’s many eateries, are way more interesting than the ones in the Roman dining hall, which is why Lisa was disappointed to find out that she’d be working in the Roman this week. People order twenty-five-dollar meals in the steakhouse, and order wine that costs more than her pet cat did. There, they have hushed conversations about important life issues like Maurice, it’s time to talk about that divorce settlement and I’ve decided I want botox for my eighteen birthday, Mom. At the Roman, people order grilled cheese and Snapple, and spend the duration of the meal breaking up fights between their kids or deciding what to have for dessert. Yesterday, Lisa saw a family of six spend the entirety of their meal talking about who ordered the best type of pasta. When did food because a means in and of itself?
Now, it’s eleven thirty, which means that breakfast is winding down, and lunch should be winding up. Today is an exception, though, because there’s some sort of whale sighting happening on the deck. The Roman is almost empty, aside for one woman and her daughter. Lisa sets down the mom’s eggs on the table and smiles at her kid, a skinny preschooler with black pigtails.
As she turns, the girl stage-whispers: “Mommy, what happened to that lady’s hair?”
“Katie!” the mother, in turn, stage-whispers back.
Lisa turns back to face them. “It’s okay. I went to the barber and fell asleep, and when I woke up, it was too late- she had chopped off all my hair.”
Katie finds this sufficient, breaking into a wide, gap-toothed smile. Her mom looks at Lisa with narrowed eyes. Lisa shrugs, and turns to see hot-shit guy from last night. She nearly jumps.
“Hey, Lisa,” he drawls. When did she tell him her name? He’s looking more attractive than he did last night, if that can even be possible, backlit by the harsh midday sky. He’s wearing a leather jacket, the kind that’s been ripped and bleached before purchase.
Oh, wait. She’s wearing a name tag. Lisa debates whether she should ask him for his name, if that would be conveying interest of some sort. But talking to someone nameless is a type of blindness to her. She can’t help herself.
The debate is won for her a moment later, when Jesse, the paralysed man from last night, emerges from the deck.
“Jesse!” Hot-shit crows.
“Dustin,” Jesse replies, dryly, and with much less enthusiasm. He has good taste, at least. He’s wearing a checked shirt that hugs his skinny frame, pressed black jeans and white canvas sneakers. He looks more put together than she does.
“Are you free now?” Dustin says, turning back to Lisa.
As Lisa ponders how to answer such a potentially loaded question, Dustin says: “I was thinking you two could swap accident stories.”
And to this, Lisa can only say, “Oh?” In her head, she begins to freak out, like the feeling you’d get as you watch a storm move stealthily towards you.
“What?” Jesse says, his head moving back and forth between the two. He has a deep, slightly hoarse voice, the kind that Lisa has always found to be so sexy.
“Yeah, I mean, It’s perfect!” Dustin claps his hands together like an enthusiastic child. “It’s funny, I met both of you like, an hour apart last night. It’s like, so perfect!”
Katie, at the table behind them, watches the exchange with wide-eyed interest. Her mom shovels the last of her eggs in her mouth and grabs the little girls hand, murmuring about the amazing whales outside.
“Jesse, you and Lisa, can like, talk about it and stuff,” Dustin says. “Lisa, tell him about your shark accident.”
Who the hell is this guy? The group therapy director? They’re both staring at her, so Lisa admits that she has a couple of minutes free. They move to a table and Lisa recounts her shark story with the reluctance of the condemned, nothing like her animated storytelling last night. She stares at the tablecloth, although she can feel Jesse’s eyes boring into hers. Her face reddens. Every time she looks at him she can almost feel his warmth against her, hear the crinkling in his pants, remember the pressure of his body curled against hers.
Jesse’s fixing her a sullen look and she raises her eyebrows, defenceless.
“Now your turn,” Dustin says, tipping back his chair precariously.
“Oh,” Lisa says quickly, “that isn’t neces-”
“No, it’s okay,” Jesse interrupts. Lisa notices that his left arm is bandaged. “You got to say your… ahem, traumatic story, so I’m gonna say mine.”
Dustin leans forward in anticipation. Lisa wants to slap him. She wants to slap herself. Here you’ve got a guy in a wheelchair, and she’s making up stories about brain-devouring sharks.
“It happened two years ago, while I was jeeping in Lesotho with a couple of buddies.” He grins at Dustin. “When you’ve got rich parents, you know?” To Lisa, he raises an eyebrow, mimicking her. “There was nothing for miles, except for those weird midget trees and some brown grass. My buddy Brian said he heard some noise, like maybe a herd of elephants or something. So I stood up in the back with a pair of binoculars to check out the perimeter, and suddenly the tour guide is yelling and I’m like, oh shit, and then the driver floors it and I’m flying out the back.”
He winks at Lisa. She looks away. Dustin puts an encouraging arm out and squeezes Jesse’s shoulder, making appropriately sympathetic noises.
“Anyway, I flip out the back and do a legit 360° somersault midair, and land on my back. The herd turns out to be a bunch of reindeer, and they’re stampeding toward us from the left, so I get run over by this huge mama deer. Luckily, the Jeep outran the herd, and by the time they came around and found me, I was almost completely dehydrated.”
“Dustin!” a bachelor party member beckons Dustin from outside. The double doors between the Roman and the main deck are kept open during the day, so the large group of whale watchers crowding the railings is visible. “Dude, you gotta see this!” There is a heavy-sounding splash behind him, and the crowd reacts, cheering and snapping pictures with their smartphones.
Dustin rockets up, following his friend outside. He pauses to give Jesse and Lisa a little wave.
Once he’s gone, Lisa splutters into uncontrollable laughter.
“My God,” she gasps, “reindeer? I mean really, reindeer? Are there really reindeer in Lesotho?” She wipes away tears.
“Oh, because that’s the biggest inconsistency you could find?” Jesse laughs. “Just keeping with the general animal theme here.”
Lisa takes a deep breath, sobering up. “Sorry, um. Kind of rude of me to-”
“Don’t apologize,” he says. “But I do want your story. No sharks.”
“I was jumping on my bed,” she says. “My hair got caught in the ceiling fan.”
“No, I mean… you. For starters, you haven’t told me your name.”
“It’s on my name tag.” Pinned to her uniform, hanging crooked, there is a sticker affixed to a piece of plastic. It reads LISA CARTER in comic sans, which is horrifying in itself, but aggravated by the fact that it’s printed in impersonal all-caps. If Lisa could’ve picked the font herself, she would’ve gone old fashioned, with her own chicken scrawl handwriting and a blue pen.
“Exactly.” Jesse shifted in his chair. “Takes the fun out of meeting people. Don’t you have an embarrassing middle name or something?”
Wind gusts over them, and Lisa is painfully reminded of her buzzed hair as a cold chill sweeps over her head. Jesse pushes flapping strands from his face and Lisa finds herself jealous of his soft-looking, ample locks. He’s only using the back of his wrist. Lisa wonders if he can move his fingers at all.
“Sorry, no middle name,” she says. “My parents are of the thoughtful sort of people.”
“It’s not that bad,” Jesse says. He seems to have trouble deciding what to do with his hands- he keeps putting them on the table, then pulling them into his lap. “You happen to be face to face with Thomas Jesse Alan. Junior.”
“Wow.” Lisa smiles.
“But people call me Jesse,” he adds.
“I know,” she says, quietly. They both look away, giving each other the privacy to remember last night. The shadows over his cheek. Vomit. Aughhh. She pushes the images away.
“How’s your hand?” She says.
“Good. Okay, not really. It hurts.” He clears his throat. “So. What brings you to the Dreamwave Inc. New England Tour aboard the Sierra?”
“You sound like that guy on the phone when you call customer service.”
“I am that guy.”
By the time the Roman begins to fill with hungry whale watchers craving fast food, Lisa has the crash course on Jesse’s life: he’s from Dover, his aunt is married to Lisa’s uncle, and no, they aren’t long lost siblings (phew.) He’s twenty-one and he’s spent every summer on the Sierra since he was a kid, and he’s been working in the customer relations department for two years now (he got the job with an actual interview, sans the use of protectzia. Lisa, who shares a last name with the Big Boss, can’t admit the same.)
She has more than that, though. She’s got the need to repeat their conversation over and over, dissecting everything he said and she said, his embarrassed smile when she asked to touch his hair and declared it the best hair she’s ever touched. She’s got her number on the back of his hand, where she scribbled it impulsively.
She’s got the feeling that he’s more attractive than Brian or Dustin or any man she’s met in a long, long time. She can’t say why. Wheelchairs have a bad connotation to her. Weakness. Limbs that can’t hold themselves anymore. Shortness of breath, exhaustion. Cancer.
You know that saying, ‘speaking of the devil?’ After her shift, she checks her messages. Five missed calls from mom. She settles on her bunk bed and presses three, speed dialing her mother.
“Lisa, love. There’s an update on Carolyn.” Mrs. Carter doesn’t even ask how she is, even though this is their first phone call since Lisa left. Because of her hours, Lisa usually ends up Whatsapping her mom, getting in to bed at one a.m. and falling asleep to a four-minute voice note.
Lisa swallows before she speaks. “How is she? Any better?”
“She’s… It’s not good, love. You know she isn’t getting any better. Except now, it’s getting close to the end.”
The child in Lisa, the part that believes in happy endings, simply cannot allow this. “I’m sorry, but you’ve always been a pessimist, Mom.”
Her mother sighs, and Lisa feels like she’s back at home, arguing at the kitchen table late at night about everything. “Lisa, you’re an adult. We knew this coming-”
“I did research, okay? I’m not talking out of my… I know what I’m saying. Not everyone dies from this kind of cancer, but if they keep telling Carolyn that-”
“Lisa! God, I’m not having an argument about it with you!” Mrs. Carter’s voice is shaky, which is so unlike her. “That’s all. I’ll talk to you later.”
The worst thing is, Lisa knows that her grip on reality is loosened when it comes to the people she loves. She had always thought it was teenage hormones, but she can’t seem to shake that part of her. She shuts off her phone with fumbling fingers and shoves it in her pocket. Lisa’s an atheist, but sometimes she likes to think God is there, just so she has something to get angry at.
Everyone knows that one guy who rushes through life, going everywhere and doing all the things that properly busy people do. Jesse was that guy. He’s still that guy. But now his body won’t let him do what he wants.
After his accident, his grandma brought him books and articles, and she’d sit next to his hospital bed and read aloud to him, raising her raspy voice over the wheeze of the ventilator. The material she read to him was exclusively on the subject of disabled people. Jesse suffered through the characters’ accidents and depressions and modified sex, read to him artfully by his grandmother, for weeks, until he was well enough to go home.
He hated it. If he’d been able to speak, he would have screamed. If he would’ve been able to move, he would have yanked out the tubes and ripped the book from grandma’s frail hands. Yeah, loneliness can do things to you. It made Jesse paranoid, it made him imagine things he never knew where within his capacity. But he wasn’t lonely enough to want to hear about the loneliness of others, of paralysed, angry people whose lives were going to be his life.
Now, he isn’t sure if what he’s feeling is real, or if it’s a product of the mind numbing hours spent heading about other people’s feelings. Some of it is real. Oh, the self pity is real.
The wind rocks him gently. He’s sitting on a two-person swing, pillows propping him up, feet dangling, the black ocean and sky spread in front of him. He can’t understand why people put rushing-water sound effects in their babies’ rooms to get them to fall asleep. Water isn’t calming. Right now, the water is furious. It smashes up against the hull of the Sierra just when you’d least expect it, just as your eyes are about to close.
Brian put him on the swing because Jesse asked him to. He’s meeting Lisa and he wants to be out of his wheelchair. He and Lisa have been texting for the past couple of days. She inked her number on his arm and then took off, like she was afraid to see his reaction. He stared at that wrist for a long time, until he finally tapped the number into his phone.
This was his rationale:
-Lisa is an attractive person. She’s the kind of girl he would have screwed with in his past life. She’s also really nice, the kind of girl who befriends cripples.
-She can’t help it. Therefore, not texting her would break her heart.
-If he does text her, she will think he wants her romantically. That’s why girls and guys text.
Having arrived at a stalemate, Jesse realized one important thing: he had the number. He had the reins, for now.
So he texted her. As a friend. That’s his plan so far. That blossomed into them hanging out on all her breaks, her coming into his office to chat, and several almost-kisses. But he can’t do this. Maybe when he goes better, if he gets better. Until then, Lisa deserves a guy whose body can match hers. A perfect one.
She approaches him from behind and whispers, “Hi.” It’s the Library Mentality. When there is quiet, no one wants to break it.
The swing squeaks as she lowers herself onto it. She’s wearing a black sweatshirt and leggings, and Jesse notices the glint of an earring at the top of her ear. The swing's back is flimsy, so he slips, despite the pillows, sliding and landing up with his head in her lap.
She laughs and kisses his nose. Not the best way to start a conversation about staying in the Friend Zone.
There’s a handle somewhere behind them and Lisa leans to the side and grabs it. Soon, the back of the swing lowers. She props him back up and leans back with a sigh. Her profile is beautiful, and Jesse wishes that he could get a hard-on from the squint of her eyes, her breath on his, her parted lips that tell him she wants him, too.
God, this is so hard. “We have to talk about something,” he says.
She yawns, and closes her eyes, nestling against him. The sound of the waves fade as her hair tickles his neck.
“The point of talking is to accomplish something, to get somewhere,” Lisa says.
“I’m already there,” she says, and Jesse feels a chill that creeps to his face. Lisa doesn’t notice, in the dark. She covers the two of them with the blanket that’s tucked under his arm, and he tips a little, closer to her. Soon, their breaths go in sync with the creaking of the swing, and they dose for a couple of minutes, because it’s been a long day and damn, it feels so good.
Then Jesse can’t take it anymore and he says, “Lisa, I gotta know something.”
“How come you’ve never asked me about my injury? Most people do. Most people want to know how I have sex, within ten minutes of the first conversation. ”
“I don’t know. I figured you’d tell me when you want to.”
Here, Jesse gets ready to launch into his ‘I’m not dating right now so don’t bother’ speech, when something stops him. He’s never been an introspective guy, but it seems like the less you move, the more you notice.
There’s a catch in her voice that isn’t exhaustion.
“What’s wrong?” he says, and she shakes her head and bites her lip. He panics. “Lisa. Lisa, look at me.”
“Stop it.” She inhales shakily and looks away. “I’m fine.”
Silence stretches between them. Somewhere, a horn toots, low and far away.
“Tell me what happened to your hair,” Jesse says, and his hand finds hers, as his brain screams nononono and some other, deeper part wants to hold her and kiss her so she’ll never cry again.
“I was part of a cult,” she says. She pries open his fingers gently and slips her hand inside. “The Hairers. We practiced a ritual where you burn human hair, preferably with a head attached, then grind up whatever is left and make a smoothie.”
“Yum,” he says, and she smiles wearily, like when you tickle a grumpy person and they react against their will.
“After I bought all the hair I could from eBay and Amazon, I ran out of money so I had to use my own.” She snuggles against him and asks, “what happened to you?”
“I fell from a hot air balloon,” Jesse says. “There was a hole in the balloon so I climbed up to patch it with a piece of my shirt. I sneezed, and the rest is history.”
Lisa lets out a laugh, a real one, not forced. “God, that’s awful.”
Jesse monitors her eyes, and they fall into a sort of staring contest.
“What’s wrong?” he whispers, and she shrugs and inclines her head the short distance toward his and kisses him, her fingers cradling his cheek, and he responds to her, blood rushing to his ears and all the bells in his brain going off at once, every pleasure receptor coming alive.
He imagines picking her up, spinning her around, clambering over each other in the rush to get into bed and rip away the other’s underwear. He sees himself showing Lisa his favourite hiking trail, right in his backyard, seeing the light in her beautiful eyes when he shows her the waterfall. She has a storyteller’s heart, he knows, and that waterfall will be like crack to her. They’ll splash and squint against the sun and kiss until it starts to get cold.
The picture changes. He sees his pale, grotesque body, ribs sticking out and clawlike fingers that won’t do what he says. A long, shiny scar at the back of his neck. Ilana showering him, adjusting his catheter. He sees himself learning how to eat in rehab, something he now has to relearn again. His mom’s I told you so lips when Ruby broke up with him last year, because it was too fucking hard.
He can’t see Lisa in that picture. He doesn’t want to. It hurts him because it will hurt her.
Jesse pulls back, breathing hard. Lisa moves away worriedly. “Your arm?” she says.
“No, no…” he pants, gasping for breath. “Lisa, I can’t. I can’t do this with you. With anyone.”
Her sparsely lit features register confusion. “But… why were you flirting with me for the past few days?”
“I wasn’t flirting.”
“Shit, Jesse.” Her expression flits from embarrassment to anger. She rubs her forehead. “I’m so… oh, shit, Jesse…”
“It’s not you,” he says hurriedly, hearing every break up he’s ever seen or heard in his head. And they aren’t even dating. “I’m not ready. My body… what, you thought this was about you?”
“I didn’t…” her eyes flash fiercely. “Well, when you put it that way. Jeez.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You’re frickin’ kidding me, right? Lisa, I’m stuck in a wheelchair. Look at my hands. Look at them and tell me you want this.”
“You can’t change that!” her voice goes up a few octaves. “I’m a freak who only wears black and shaved her head and makes up stories all the time. Your wheelchair is a convenient excuse. You could have any girl you want.”
Jesse suddenly wants to stand more than he ever has. This is a conversation meant for pacing and eye-to-eye glaring. He shakes his head. “That’s not true. You’re really cool, Lisa. I’m just…. Look, you wouldn’t understand.”
“Understand what?” her voice has taken on a sharp edge. “How insecure you are about your body? Trust me, I can see that.”
He’s been slapped. Icy water douses his body. “You don’t want me. You’ve got that weird mothering thing that girls have, where they like to dote or care for someone or whatever. It’s not real.”
“I only kissed you, Jesse. I’m not asking for your hand in marriage.” Lisa pushes off of the swing, sending it careening wildly. Her shoes tap briskly against the deck until she stops, a mere silhouette, and turns back to look at him.
“Is someone coming to get you?” She says hesitantly.
“See?” he says. “Imagine if we were together. You wouldn’t be able to desert me even if you wanted to. I’m helpless.” He starts to slip to the side, towards the still-warm gap that Lisa left beside him. There’s nothing around him that he can use to hold himself back up.
Lisa considers this. “That must be terrible,” she whispers, her voice half-lost in the hush of the waves. “Not being able to escape.”
“Brian’s coming in ten minutes,” he says.
“Good,” she says. “Then I’ll go.”
He slips the rest of the way, until his head is flat against the seat.