“People love telling you that cerebral palsy isn’t progressive,” I tell Dr. Zhou. “What is progressive is having a shitty, weak body.” We’re sitting at the edge of a shingle beach, at a table for two, under a sky burgeoning with soft grey clouds. The green-grey sea moves with fitful cross-currents from the wind. I hold the stem of my wineglass precisely between thumb and fingertip, rolling it back and forth slowly.
“That’s true, if to varying extents, for all of us,” Dr. Zhou – Paul – says. His eyes are as serious as always, but there’s a hint of a smile on his lips. “I still remember what the page of my high school biology textbook looked like, where I first had it pointed out to me that we start dying as soon as we start living.”
None of this is real. This is what I imagine for myself, somewhere between sleeping and waking. This is what I do for myself.
“Some of us less slowly than others,” I remind him.
He watches me as the wind moves his hair, and I continue. “I didn’t used to need a chest strap. Or the neck brace.” Since this is a dream, I don’t need to say these things to him as if I need to prove myself; except there is still a piece of that of that in there.
“Two years ago, I got some kind of viral infection. On top of the headaches and fever and shit, I started having trouble swallowing. I should have gotten more scared than I did, because within a couple of days I had to be intubated, the works.
“Like two days after getting out of the hospital for the first time, I aspirated food and ended up with pneumonia. Back into the hospital. Altogether I was basically in the hospital for seven months. I lost like twenty, twenty-five pounds. By the end of the year, I’d lost – of course – all of the clients I was doing freelance work for.
“When I finally got clear of it, I had to learn how to swallow again.
“After all of that, I guess I should have been glad that all I lost, physically, was some trunk stability, but I couldn’t be. I just felt – feel – so fucking done with optimism, with the idea of gratitude. It takes a shitton of energy, it honestly takes discipline, and I literally didn’t have it in me anymore. When you’re not even thirty, you’ve never been able to move yourself in your life, and you’ve just spent a quarter of a year with a tube down your throat, it’s just… why, you know?“
Paul is watching me gravely, his face very still. His silence feels heavy. I imagine the salt air moving across my skin, with a nervous briskness that suggests a rainstorm coming soon.
After I stop talking, I watch as Paul’s eyes move over my face, in a way that people’s eyes almost never do: normally I get either panicked glances away or the horrified/fascinated stare. He’s looking me over slowly, intently, a slight furrow – concern? curiosity? – between his brows; I have the sense that he’s looking not at me, but for something in me.
“Why haven’t you stopped?” Paul says, finally.
“Why haven’t you given up?”
I pretend like I didn’t know what he meant the first time he asked the question, like I’m not staging all of this as a way to hold myself and my coward’s tenets up against someone whom I imagine on the thinnest of evidence to be a better person than me, a brighter person, a deeper and stronger person.
“Oh. Inertia,” I say; it’s something I’ve said to myself over and over, a talismanic word, but one I’ve never dared to voice for fear of the questions it would raise. Saying it out loud, even in a dream, carries a sense of release, of daring, that is almost sensual. “I’m just waiting until I run out of momentum.” My voice rises at the end, an involuntary questioning note.
Paul responds to the implicit doubt. “But now you have hope,” he says, with exactly the right shading of skeptical humor.
“The h-word. Tell me again what you told me yesterday when I asked you about the device.”
“After the trial, you asked me,” he says obediently, but with a challenging glint in his eye, “when it would be commercially available.”
“And?” I watch as the wind lifts his hair again.
“And I said we weren’t sure. Five years, maybe six.”
“Five years,” I say, “is a long time.” And I imagine releasing my wine glass to gesture demonstratively at myself.
“For someone like you,” he says, voicing my implication.
“For someone like me. It’s perfect now. Why won’t you let me have it?” I could have said us, pretended I was asking on behalf of everyone like me, but like optimism, generosity is beyond me.
“The device? It’s not perfect. Maybe in your memory it is.” He’s diverging from the script
“It was,” I insist. I show him: again I extend my arm in a single smooth gesture, extend my fingers elegantly at the end of the arc. “I remember what every moment of that feels like. You wouldn’t goddamn understanding what perfect is.”
My brain is spinning its wheels; it doesn’t know where to go with this anymore. I feel the pull of anxiety, and for a sudden sick moment I’m back in myself, awake, and I feel it with horror as my limbs wake up, too. One of my arms flops across my chest, writhing. I inhale deeply and force myself to relax, I reach again for the slightly woozy sense of drifting that I know will take me back to that early-morning state of half-dream. I relax away from my body.
I’m back; I slip again into the grey day, the sound of the wind and the ocean, the way that I want Paul to look at me.
“But you’ll do it,” Paul is saying, as if our conversation has continued in my absence.
“I’ll do what?” I put all the spite that I can into the question. I don’t want to make this easy for him.
“You’ll come back. You’ll do another trial, and another one.” His brown eyes are fixed on mine. “As many as you can come back for, you will. Even though…”
“Even though.” Again, I load it with spite.
“Even though it breaks everything, every way that you think about yourself.”
“By giving you what you thought you always wanted.”
“Yes.” I could wake up now, if I chose to, I could see if it’s time to call Joel in.
“But you’ll come back.”
His eyes are like a physical weight on me. Again, outside, I feel my body start to writhe around me, the calm burning center of me, but I stay here.
“You’ll come back,” he says a final time. And I say, “Yes.”
“This can’t hold,” I say, as he finally, finally moves his hand across the table to place it on mine.
“But you’ll come back,” he says. And I let myself edge toward wakefulness.