We both woke up early in the morning, not much after sunrise, despite or maybe because of the fractured night. Unusually, Roy looked tired, with a heaviness to his eyes, but he looked at me alertly. Neither of us said anything, but we each moved to touch the other. I reached out my arm to him, ran the pad of my thumb over his brows. He rolled onto his side, rested his near hand against the side of my face, and closed his eyes with contentment as I stroked, pushing away the tension that I knew he tended to store there.
I marveled at him, at his nearness and realness: another man, here in my bed, a man who let me touch him and love him.
After a little while, he opened his eyes again and nudged my hand away with his face, smiling affectionately: my turn, his eyes said.
He moved his hand to my bad arm and started stroking from the shoulder down. I sighed as his blunt fingers dug into the perpetually tense muscle of my upper arm, then slid down to pull gently and steadily against the contracted elbow joint, releasing tension in my wrist.
I closed my eyes. Maybe I would fall asleep again; I had well over an hour until I needed to start getting ready for the day. Roy’s hand released my arm, slid down to my hand. There was a brief break in contact, and then suddenly his fingers were stroking the underside of my contracted hand. Without thinking about it, I jerked away slightly, opening my eyes.
There was a crease between Roy’s brows again, and he looked at me questioningly.
“Oh! Sorry,” I said. A wave of fatigue hit me then, uncomfortably mixed with the twist of anxiety that had followed me up from out of my nightmares. I felt heavy, sour. I turned my face away from Roy slightly and had to think. “It’s just… still a weird spot for me. I don’t get touched there that often.”
I looked back at him again, smiled and tried to put some humor into my voice. “It’s like, I dunno, your armpit or something.”
Roy didn’t say anything, just kept looking at me with those worried brows and heavy eyes. And suddenly, for the first time since we had started seeing each other, I felt a stab of wholly irrational annoyance with him. That solidity of presence, those expectant eyes seemed suddenly oppressive: an unfamiliar object in my space, distracting at best, alien at worst.
It was such a small thing. But Roy saw that moment in me, felt it; I knew he did. And I saw him withdraw into himself, in turn. It was if shutters went down behind his eyes; he looked blanker, flatter. I had seen this happen to him before, but I had never before been the cause.
On some level I knew that I would soon enough be horrified that I had felt that way. It was perverse, ungrateful. But in the moment, all I could feel was tired.
I was tired of waking up crying and spasming, and needing to be comforted. I was tired of being evasive with Amy, other friends, coworkers, making up deadlines or illnesses when I was really just uneasy and underslept. I was tired of worrying about the arraignment, tired of dreading the next call from the police station or the district attorney’s office. And – I was beginning to become aware that the pain in my lower back that always came with restless nights was accompanied this time by the creeping burning and numbness that threatened the onset of a pinched nerve. And that might take weeks to resolve, given that I did nothing but put pressure on my lower back. And the whole time I’d be worrying that it meant that my slight scoliosis was worsening.
I was tired of the sensation of fear. The constancy of it, the shame. In the mornings, I pushed it down into a hard knot in my stomach so I could talk, work, travel; by the evening it had unraveled itself again, welled up to consume my nights. It was getting so that even conversations with my parents, Amy – sometimes they felt as if I were simply looking for a distraction.
It all seemed simultaneously so petty and so crushing. I wished I could just close my eyes and snap back instantly into the blankness of sleep.
Nothing really happened in the alleyway.
Nobody hurt you.
I had been trying to convince myself of it for weeks; it still wasn’t working.
By this point Roy and I had been staring at each other wordlessly for so long that I had lost any sense of what the look on his face might mean. I became aware that I hadn’t been able to draw a full breath for some time. I forced myself to exhale hard, blowing it out through my mouth. Now I became aware that Roy was moving his jaw and blinking in a way that meant he wanted to say something, but was having trouble.
This, at last, roused something in me, a flicker of the familiar tenderness; but still I couldn’t manage to do anything about it.
Finally Roy ended it by simply rolling to the other side and getting out of bed. Silently, he padded around the bed and toward the bathroom, rubbing the back of his head slowly, his face tilted away from me. I retained enough decency not to pretend to go back to sleep; instead I stared up at the ceiling until I could hear the shower start in the bathroom.
Somehow that simple release of sound seemed to break the spell, the alien stasis that had fallen on me. I reached out my good arm to grab Roy’s pillow, flung it across my face and pushed it down until I could shout into it: “Fuck!”
And then, more softly: “Coward.”
I flung the pillow aside again, and then roughly pushed myself up to sitting, disregarding the flare of pain along my spine. I flung back the covers, pressed the heel of my hand against my mouth, and stared down at my legs as if they told the truth of the situation: bent, emaciated, immobile.
I sat like that for some minutes. Thoughts went through my head furiously, but I don’t know if I could have named any of them. I heard the water shut off again in the shower.
I twisted to reach my cellphone on the nightstand; I set it against one thigh and feverishly tapped out an email as the uncomfortable prickling warmth and occasional metallic stabs of nerve pain ran up and down my spine. Hi everyone, I’m feeling under the weather and won’t be able to make it into the office today. But I’ll still be good to go on the deliverables we discussed last Thursday; please expect to see them by…
I could hear the clink of the loose towel bar as Roy replaced his towel in the bathroom; I hit send, and by the time the bathroom door opened, I had begun the careful transfer to my wheelchair. I could hear Roy step out into the hall and pause in the bedroom doorway, but couldn’t yet bring myself to look up. For another half a minute, I let myself focus on edging over the transfer board, push by push; I thought in a flat kind of way about the pain in my back and the way that it was beginning to transmit itself to my hips.
I could tell that Roy was still standing in the doorway. Once I got seated in my chair, I sighed automatically. I felt I could think more clearly; for now, the change in posture had somewhat relieved the pain in my back, though the tightness in my hips meant that my legs and feet were hovering out of the seat. I put my good hand on my left knee, pressed downward for a long moment, more for the sensation of force than because it would do any good, and then raised my head to look at Roy.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Still silent, he crossed the room swiftly and came to the side of my wheelchair. Gently he wrapped one arm around my shoulders and one around my head, pulling me towards his chest.
It took me a moment to let myself lean into him. “I know you felt it too,” I said into his arms, muffled.
As soon as I’d completed the sentence, the words registered, perversely, as a stock phrase from flirty pop songs. My mouth twisted. But Roy only nodded against the top of my head.
“It’s going to be okay?” I said, still muffled.
He nodded again, and then slowly released me, stood looking down at me seriously.
I took a breath and said carefully, “I think I’ll go with you today.” Roy’s mouth opened; his eyes widened.
Because today was, of course, the arraignment. We would find out how the four men in the alleyway would plead to their charges, whether we could expect the swift resolution of a plea bargain, or a trial that would certainly mean weeks, and easily months, of testimony and argument and delay; except that I had been saying for weeks that I wouldn’t go, couldn’t stand it, would twiddle away at work as if nothing were going on, until my father and Roy had sent word back. (At least I’d had the excuse that my mother, too, had decided that she wasn’t up to it.)
For the first time that morning, Roy spoke: “Are y – y – you sure?” His head quested in space slightly as he worked over the repeated syllables; his brows were deeply furrowed, and he had put a hand to his chin.
I put my hand up to hold his forearm. “Yes,” I said. “I’m sure. Let’s get ready.”
I dressed carefully, as if armoring myself; Roy, already dressed in a button-up shirt and a pair of dark jeans that were considerably less worn than his typical wardrobe, sat and sometimes watched me, sometimes seemed to be thinking to himself, one hand again to his mouth. He had made coffee for both of us, and the aroma filled the apartment.
With my back and hips acting up, putting on pants was a struggle, and I could see that Roy would have liked to help me as I leaned back and painstakingly inched them up my legs with the help of the grabber stick that extended my reach. But when he looked at me inquiringly, I just gave him a smile to say that I wanted to work on it myself, and he slowly relaxed back into his chair again.
The silence around us was heavy but, thankfully, not oppressive; it just seemed like it would have been too much work for either of us to say anything, that we each needed to be alone with our thoughts. Except that I was working on not having any thoughts, was just focusing on breathing deeply, on calculating each motion and registering the various pains that ran through my body – feeling them all, but letting them go again, convincing myself that they would run their course through me, and then away again. This was how it went; this was me.
As I finished up, Roy finally broke the silence to call an accessible cab. Holding hands, we waited.