"How did you get up here?"
Theo lifts his head. He didn't hear me coming—it's like he forgets I don't have footsteps anymore.
That thought makes me equally bitter and amused.
"Thought I magically healed my spine?"
He keeps his mouth shut and shrugs. I'll have to talk about this with building management; I bet they don't let just anyone in other apartments. But of course I, by far the youngest guy living on this floor—or any floor really—must need a nurse, must have forgotten to use my wheelchair, must...
This is bugging me way more than it probably should. Well, Theo is.
He's casually sitting on the floor with his back pressed against the wall. I try not to look too much at his face—looking alike has always stressed me out, now more than ever. Mom tried to do the twinning thing for a while, but it didn't stick; we'd always find a way. Be it stripping off the identical red t-shirts or getting unexpected cuts in different places. It strikes me as a cosmical cruel joke that we'd end up absolutely unmistakable in the end.
His hair is long now, past his shoulders. His beard too. Maybe I should shave. Liv likes it, though.
"Why are you here again?"
"So we can talk."
"I'm really not-"
"Seriously, Ben. C'mon."
I rub my knee. It's like the pain is irradiating all the way down my legs, a cold-hot buzz that's getting progressively worse as this day goes on. I keep shifting around, trying to find out if it's coming from posture. Either way, I really gotta lay down and relieve some pressure off my ass; with Liv around, it's like I'm always in my chair, doing things. None of it is her fault—it's all on me, trying to pretend that dating me is no different than dating other guys, other than the eventual circumventable accessibility issues.
I gotta slow down a bit, or I'll have a hole the size of a tennis ball open in my buttcheeks for months. I also need to shower and get on with my bowel program—it's one of those long nights. Then...
It's like I never have enough time in my hands to do what I want and what I need. Goddammit.
I sigh, my brother's puppy eyes—my eyes—staring back at me. I decide to read that tingling down my back as needing to cath and not Theo's being here.
I get my key off my lap and unlock the door. In a different life, Theo would have the spare key, the one I'm saving for Liv.
He follows me in, closely. "Listen..."
I keep wheeling down the living room. "Gimme a sec."
I get to my bedroom, but Theo is still tagging me. "Ben, I don't think-"
My leg jumps. "I said give me a second, goddammit."
"Can't you just wait?!"
Can a one year old hold it in? Better than I could, actually.
"No, Theo. I can't just wait."
I try not to focus on Mari's chest. They're right on my face, but I can't look—I'm struggling.
But goddamn, I'm glad my horniness doesn't show anymore. At least for that the SCI is good for. Not really, though. I wouldn't have to worry about raising a tent for Mari's tits because they wouldn't be right in my face—because I would have enough core control that I can lean forward no problem. She wouldn't have to hold me.
But I can't. So here we are.
"You good there, Ben?"
I grit my teeth. Yeah, I'm good. I'm fantastic. I'm so fantastic that I'm glad that erections are no longer a thing. Wanted or unwanted.
"Yeah." I say, letting go a heavy breath from the massive effort that is holding up my trunk.
"Ok, I'll let go now." She gives a careful step back, still supportively holding my shoulders.
"Bring it closer." I say, my fists glued to the bed.
She brings it closer. The wheelchair. My wheelchair, my first wheelchair, because apparently there'll be plenty. Forever. My stomach drops—maybe not as dramatically as the paraglide off the Rio mountains it used to months ago, but it's still pretty bad. I shake my head and swallow that feeling down.
Mari gently kicks the chair closer and I take another breath. Someday, you'll transfer in the blink of an eye, they promised me. I only believe it because I've seen the guys from the b-ball team doing it. But I'm nowhere near that now.
"Don't worry, you're picking up the slack from the past months." She reassures me, locking the wheels in place so it doesn't slide away and I faceplant the floor. It's happened before.
She says that because before rehab I'd spend most of the time in bed—transferring me was a hassle and sitting down wasn't great, then there was the pressure sore. A local physio came over twice a week and worked on my legs—until dad had him put me on the parallel bars. Are you feeling better? He'd ask. He wasn't really interested. And the honest answer wasn't what he wanted to hear. Can you walk yet? He was, indeed, interested in that answer.
"You'll do great once you have momentum going for you."
It's all about momentum now.
"I just wish it was a little bit easier." I end up saying.
Grateful that dad isn't here now, breathing over her shoulder and telling her that she shouldn't be training me on transfers and wheelies, that I should be focused. On bigger things, impossible things.
"You're still weak from the hospital. I take it you lost a bunch of weight?" She asks as she supervises my sloppy transfer, careful so that I don't get another spinal injury while doing it. I nod. I did lose a bunch of weight, mostly muscle mass. "You'll build it back up quickly, trust me."
I drop my butt on the chair and then arrange my legs. I hate looking at them now—back at home, I was always in the same five sweatpants, but here I'm in shorts all the time. Football legs, now not a whole lot more than skin and bone. Limp like they don't belong to anyone. I used to be so sick looking and touching them, but it's almost fine now. Almost.
"I hope so."
Because my arms aren't used to all the pushing it's been put through the past few weeks—all those gentle facility ramps that you almost don't notice are there, but are actually lots of work.
Mari smiles knowingly. Reassuringly. It'll get better, I'll get better. Not the way dad wants to, but oh well. Too bad.
"C'mon." She swats my shoulder with a small wipe she has around her neck. "Let's get your weak lazy ass to the gym."
I slide the bathroom door closed, cursing universal architecture for denying me the pleasures of banging a door in anger. I get my cathing supplies and get on with the dreadful, though so mechanical that I can do with my eyes closed by now, motions of inserting a tube where no man should be inserting anything. But it turns out my bladder wasn't full and I just wasted a perfectly good catheter with a couple drops of pee. God, I hate it when that happens—and it happens a lot.
I throw the disposable stuff in the trash and wash my hands. I do it meticulously, dreading the moment I'll leave this bathroom and have to deal with Theo. I'd take it inserting shit up my dick anytime. I wash my face with cold water from the sink, trying to cool down before I can face him again.
He's pouring himself some of the shitty whiskey I keep in a corner of the living room purely for aesthetic reasons. I hate whiskey. He's about to find out it's not the same kind as dad's, the fancy stuff he keeps around the house so he can impress people, and I watch as his face contorts when it hits his tongue.
"Goddammit, Bernardo." He downs the last of it. "This is shit."
"I don't drink."
I wanna transfer into the Eames armchair near the window so badly—pull my legs up the ottoman and just nap in a position that's neither putting a lot of pressure on my spine nor laying down. Wake up a few hours later so I can pick Liv up from work and bring her here so we can cuddle and sleep.
But the elephant is still in the room, and I can do none of that.
He rubs his mouth and sets the glass down. His eyes wander around the walls around us, the few paintings I didn't pick myself because I have the artistic sensibility of a five year old. Theo is looking everywhere but at me.
"Nice apartment." He says with a nod, staring beyond the floor to ceiling window and the wide living room. "How did you get it?"
"I lured an old lady into adding me to her will." I tell him, plain faced. How does he think I did it? Money laundering? "I bought it, Theo."
From an old lady whose dad projected the entire building in the 50s and got three units, that he split evenly between his three daughters. I live right between two of the elderly Dirceu sisters, and I met them in Physiotherapy. Cordelia got me a fantastic deal and moved to a great nursing home seaside with the money—she'd say I reminded her of her own dad, who'd been a polio victim as a kid. I still pay her a visit when I can, and her sisters have been trying to set me up with their granddaughters for years. It never works out. Still, they're the closest thing to a support system I have in this city.
Theo plops down on the couch and for some reason, that annoys me so much.
"I'm moving next week." He says, oblivious to my anger.
What do I have to do with it, again? I wheel to the kitchen and get the lasagna leftovers from yesterday. I shove it in the microwave with unnecessary force.
"I got a research position with the São Paulo University." He keeps going.
I shift, my eye-level microwave humming and filling the silence.
"Good for you." And that sounds a little too cynical even for me.
He walks inside the kitchen. My lowered sink and appliances look kind of pathetic next to him—it's not that short, goddammit. Liv looks fine around my kitchen. I narrow my eyes.
"B, I didn't come here for the small talk." He tells me, using the nickname we'd go by as kids. Somehow, he lost that right.
I bite my tongue so hard I taste blood and tap my knees.
"Ok." I finally say. "Fine. Talk the big talk."
Even though I know there's nothing he could ever say.
I'm drenched in sweat.
If gym rats found out how hard and tiring physiotherapy is, then Mari would have an overflow of patients.
But gym rats probably don't need to find out how to sit up straight again, so I doubt that lifting a ball filled with nothing but air above their heads would be too much trouble for anyone save the few lucky ones in this building.
"You did great." She tells me, condescendingly. I didn't do great. She reads my face, because the next thing she adds is: "C'mon, don't have to be so hard on yourself."
But I do.
My arms feel like jello, and it's a goddamn miracle I make that transfer back to my chair. Mari gets closer, her high ponytail sliding down her shoulder. She looks cute—so cute. In a parallel universe somewhere, uninjured Ben is into her; he winks and smiles and makes the first move in a random bar. He's sure she'd at least give him a look back. But this Ben, present universe Ben, isn't hitting on a cute girl from across the bar—her hands are under his armpits a lot of the time. There's no way she would even give Present Universe Ben, which turns out to be me, a second look unless it's for correcting my posture.
Why couldn't they assign me Roberto? I'm sure being against his chest is less humiliating than this. But Roberto only gets quads, probably because they need more hands-on assistance and there's an overrepresentation of tiny women here. I'm not small by any means, but I can help-them-help-me. At least.
"Let's go." She taps my shoulder and we leave the gym.
The hallways here are wide and smooth, and wheeling isn't a whole lot of work. Mari is way ahead of me, though. Her butt is eye level now.
Goddammit, why am I so horny all the time? My dick doesn't even work, and she knows that.
I swallow—hard. I see someone calling her and she trots over, her ponytail jumping. They talk and she nods, shooting me a quick glance. They're talking about me. I frown and wheel over. She smiles.
"You got a visit."
Oh, fucking shit. "My parents?"
She shakes her head no. "Let's see".
I bet it's Clara. She's visited before, the sweet country girl who pretends to be impressed at the clothes I put on myself. She's sweet. It's the only visit I don't absolutely dread. She doesn't know my dick doesn't work.
But when I get to the common areas, I don't see Clara anywhere. Instead, it's Theo standing there, stabbing my chest with something.
"Ah, thanks." For bringing him, he seems to add. He holds Mari's hand in a firm handshake and a smile. Only then his eyes dart over to me. "Hey, man."
Then he kind of attempts a hug—but it's hard hugging people sitting down. Especially when the one standing is that tall. It's awkward and it ends with a half hug and a shoulder tap. I don't think I can say anything.
"Hey." The lump in my throat loosens a bit. "What- weren't you in Egypt or something?"
He scratches his head. "I got a break."
Yeah, sure. "Cool."
"Yeah. I thought I'd pay you a visit."
He hides his hands in his pockets and shifts from one foot to the other, looking everywhere but at me. People do that now.
"Do you wanna see the garden?" I ask, trying to fill that weird silence.
I grab the pushing rims and spin my chair around, leading the way. We've skyped before, from across the world—pixelated images and faltering audio connection. Not much could be said those times, and I don't think a lot can be said now either.
I'm trying to think of topics to discuss when I feel the wheels moving inside my hand, taking me faster. I look up.
"You don't have to do that," I tell Theo, a pit in my stomach, the smooth pushing rims sliding through my palms.
Except it's not fine. I feel kinda sick—like when I used that squeaky hospital chair at home that I could barely use myself because of the high chunky armrests and wheels placed in the far back and far too high backrest.
I grab the wheels to a full stop, holding the tires in place. "I can push myself."
He retreats his hands to his pockets, shrugging and avoiding my eyes once again. I'm screwing this up so bad, but what's done is done now. I resume the pushing, trying to make it obvious that I really don't need to be pushed around. We go past the wide glass doors leading to the nice, fully accessible garden; the wide treetops towering over us, the sunbeams shining through the leaves but still providing lots of shade for slow walks and sitting, which is pretty much every patient's default here.
The ground under my wheels goes from perfectly smooth to slightly textured, and my left knee jumps when it notices that, too. It bounces up and down, and all that moving triggers the other leg.
I try to shift and press them down, but it only helps a bit. I catch Theo staring, half curious and half hopeful. Kind of how I looked at them the first times they did that—actually, exactly like it. Picture perfect.
"It's just a spasm." I stab that thread of hope right between its back, just the way a doc did to me that first time. He lifts his eyes with a confused frown. "Nothing to be happy about."
"So it's not…"
"It's not voluntary."
Theo nods, turning around and walking to one of the wooden seats. This is better—eye level. It's hard getting used to looking up all the time now. I head over until my frame is touching the bench too, but I decide against transferring.
"I'll take the handles off next time." I tell him, for lack of better things to say. "I just don't like being pushed."
"Why don't you get one of those chairs with joysticks?"
My face contorts with the mention of a powerchair. "I don't need that. It's for quads. I'm a para. My arms are fine."
Only a bit sore.
"But isn't it more... comfortable?"
"It's also weird as fuck. And it doesn't fit anywhere, not even in cars." Implying that there'll be one in the future. I hope he knows that. "It's big and chunky. Not a whole lot of freedom"
He shrugs. I don't know if he completely understands what the differences between power and manual chairs mean. I wouldn't, either—doesn't Professor X use a powerchair? And he's only the most iconic paraplegic character in pop culture. Not a good look for us.
"If that were me, I'd pick whatever's easier."
But he wouldn't. He'd be glad for the sore arms and getting out of bed alone, and collapsing the chair so it fits in the backseat of a car. He'd crave for every little bit of independence he could get, even if it hurt a little. Even if pushing up ramps absolutely sucked.
"I only got this chair a couple weeks ago, it's the first I get with my measurements." The first of many. "That hospital one I had at home was awful."
"But it was a manual, too."
He's confused. How could he even think that this chair, modern and sleek looking, custom made from the size measurements to the air cushion, expensive chair is the same as the generic chunky and squeaky shit hospital chair? They look fundamentally different. The permanent hole in my bank account is there to prove it.
But I forget Theo isn't a wheelchair nerd now. He doesn't have to be—all chairs are the same, right? It changes nothing for him. He wasn't even there when I picked it, so he doesn't have that second-hand awareness either.
That's right. He wasn't there.
"It was hard for me looking at you...like that."
The words hit me worse than a punch would. Like that. I swallow that lump in my throat and it bubbles into anger inside my stomach. I could really use a drink, but I know it'd only make it more inflammable.
"Ah, really?" I laugh. "Yeah, I'm sure it was. Herculean."
Except it's that part where Hercules kills his wife and children.
Theo shakes his head. "Dad said that you'd hate me."
That's what he said?
"I thought we were good at ignoring ninety percent of whatever the fuck it is dad says, because it's ninety five percent shit." The kind you can't even use as fertilizer.
"You're not listening."
"I'm all ears, Theo." I pick at my lasagna, my stomach churning around. I can't bring myself to take the fork to my mouth. "And you were too, apparently."
"He said that you needed time. To get better." And he didn't mean that psychologically. He meant walking. "That if I were there, I would always be a reminder."
"For me or for you?" I raise my hands. "You only believed him because it was easier."
"Can you blame me?"
I can. So I shrug. "Can you blame me?"
"See, so many people felt like it would be easier to cut me off their lives after I was shot." Including you. He knows it. "I don't see why I shouldn't get that same right."
"I'm here now. We could make things right."
"Because it's so much easier now, yeah?" I drop my shoulders. If I were using that overpriced fitness smartwatch I bought on a whim months ago, it would be beeping with my altered blood pressure. I sigh. "Welcome to São Paulo, I'm sure you'll love it."
"You're headstrong. And proud." He points his finger at me.
"You haven't looked at me in eleven years, Theo. Better being proud than a coward."
"Just like dad."
Even after he leaves, I end up doing none of the things I need.
"Yeah, we should move somewhere else." Theo tells me with a chuckle, his eyes lost in a tree somewhere behind me. "Somewhere far away."
I hold on tight to that last bit of hope he's giving me. Leaving mom and dad's—leaving the second floor of the 500-years-old farmhouse. It feels so distant, but also just around the corner. I could do it with Theo. After rehab.
"Big enough that we'd get lost in."
He nods. "It'd be nice."
He brushes his hair back, the long locks he's been growing past his shoulders, and cleans the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. I feel slightly victorious for winning wheelchair racing against him, and then substantially less when he stands up and raises his arms above his head with a groan.
Mari walks over, her grin taking up half of her face. "Well, I should get that chair back now."
She uses her conspiracy voice, as if we were breaking lots of rehab laws by doing this. Even though I know for a fact that it happens all the time. She flips her hair over her shoulder, leaning towards Theo.
"Thanks for that." He winks and she blushes—blushes!
I stare between them; she touches his arm to say it's ok and that he's a great wheeler but I'm way better at this. Of course I'm better at this, I have to be better at this. She pats my shoulder almost condescendingly when I point that out and shares a brief look with him that I catch in the air. Like they're sharing a secret—a Walker's secret.
I'm making that up in my head, but it still stings.
She doesn't smile like that for me, but somehow she does for my carbon copy twin.
Theo shifts and puts his hand in his pockets.
"Hey, I'll go get some coffee." He says, looking at me. I nod, telling him I'll wait.
He doesn't come back. He vanishes. I still sit there way longer than I should, because See, It's a big facility. He could have gotten lost.
But I'm delusional.
He doesn't come back, and he doesn't call either. But I know he's still in town, because Mari goes out with him at night and unknowingly tells me about it.