October—18 Months After
It wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t something she’d broadcast either. Some things were meant to be mourned privately. This was one of those things. Yet somehow, everyone and their goddamned mother seem to know.
Every time it came up, Alice felt the shame of it all roll over her again, hot and sick, like it was all her fault. She supposes, most days, that it is all her fault. She is, and always will be, the reason he decided to leave. It’s a fucking joke that she sometimes pretends—pretends she could have stopped him.
So, when Patti Dobbs says it, Alice isn’t surprised. Not really. She feels as if someone has taken the back of her head and slammed her face down on the desk between them. But, surprised?
The unpleasant laughter that pools in the back of her throat feels as vicious as acid and she fights the urge to buckle under the comment, to deny it, as if it were a false accusation—one that she could disprove, or at the very least, deny.
“Miss Peck?” The voice comes again. It is unfamiliar, sweetly strident, and unwelcome.
“Yes?” She stutters.
“I asked you a question, did you want me to repeat it?” Patti leans forward toward Alice, sloping over her bare arms on the desk. They’re chubby and pale. The left side of her mouth curves upward in what isn’t definitively a smirk but also isn’t definitively not a smirk. Alice doesn’t need Patti to repeat the question. She heard her the first time. She doesn’t need to hear her ask about Jack again. She knows she’s likely to snap under the weight of the shame.
“That’s correct,” she mumbles.
“Your husband left you earlier this year?” She asks again blandly. It’s if she’s asking whether Alice want’s fries with that, as if she isn’t twisting a sharp knife in Alice’s back and watching the thick red blood gurgle out for the second time.
“Ten months ago, about.” Alice mumbles and laughs under her breath. About. What a fucking joke. Alice knows exactly how long it has been, down to the minute. It has been ten months, one week, two days, and about—she glances at her watch discreetly—fifteen hours and nine minutes.
Patti is silent for a few seconds and gives Alice a sad smile as she returns to look at the computer screen off to the left that Alice is beginning to think is just a prop. It’s probably the Windows 95 bouncing box screensaver that everyone loved back in the day. Patti gives off a distinctly Windows 95 vibe with her fake smiles and prematurely grey hair.
“I see you kept his last name though,” she continues, unnecessarily.
“Why?” she slices into her again. Alice swallows and frowns, clawing for her composure.
“We’re just separated, for the moment. Not officially divorced.”
“Ah,” Patti nods. “And do you think that’s one of the reasons your, uh, job performance has been, lacking?” Her voice loses its pudding-like softness. It is more clipped now—more official, more disciplinary. This woman works in human resources and she isn’t here to help Alice. That much is crystal clear.
“That I kept his last name?”
“No, that he left you.”
You frigid bitch.
Alice would love nothing more than to say that, but instead she looks up from her hands clasped in her lap, she is wringing them nervously, hating the chipped red nail polish on her nails and the fact that she is still wearing her wedding ring and the engagement ring that she and Jack had picked out together six years ago next month. Twisting the simple gold band he slipped on her finger in the small church in her home town, a golf ball sized knot wedges itself in her throat. Swallowing and fixing her amber eyes on Patti’s muddy brown ones she bites her lower lip hard.
“I do,” she replies tightly. Patti nods once and looks down at the paper in front of her, scribbling something down with her pen.
“And the car accident last October?” Patti continues, her voice hollow and distinctly devoid of any empathy.
“What about it?” Alice snaps, reactionary and raw.
“Sorry,” she then tosses out softly, in performative conciliation, referring to her tone. Patti blinks once but doesn’t reply. Alice wants to ring Patti’s neck, but doesn’t want to lose her job.
“You sustained a concussion in the car wreck, is that correct?” she presses onward. recklessly.
“But the doctors cleared you to come back to work, I see, only a week afterwards,” She asks in a patronizing voice as she flips through the paperwork in front of her.
“So, your concussion wasn’t serious?” Alice shrugs. She isn’t familiar with the concussion severity chart. She still got odd headaches she never had before. She had to have the events explained to her in the hospital. She had a few stitches and wasn’t allowed to sleep that first night—the nurses had kept her awake for observation. Frankly, she didn’t give much of a shit how serious her concussion was, or is, or will be. Because compared to Jack’s injuries?
“It wasn’t, no.”
“But I see you didn’t return for almost 8 weeks,” she continues, referring to the prop screen.
“I was on medical leave.”
“For your concussion that wasn’t serious?” Alice’s face colors and she can almost feel steam rising from her skin.
“You husband from whom you’re separated now?” Patti presses tone uncomfortably, business-like. She scribbles something down on the paper in front of her, the scratching of the pen a magnified jarring sound. Alice looks up at Patti once again, her lips a tight line, fury hovering in her gaze. Patti sees it but makes no mention.
“His injuries were extensive,” Alice replies flatly after a few seconds, shocked at the coolness of her tone.
“And it seems that—"
“I’m sorry,” Alice interjects sharply before she can stop herself, or perhaps, this is her stopping herself from punching Patti squarely in the jaw. “What exactly does this have to do with my PIP?”
“I’m just trying to get the whole picture here before we put you on an official 90-day performance plan.”
Alice stares at Patti hard for a second then looks down at her lap. She knows her performance hasn’t been good. How could it be when nothing mattered to her anymore? Nothing but Jack.
“It’s been a hard year and a half. But I’m doing better,” she lies expertly, “And I want to keep this job.” Another lie. Well it isn’t entirely a lie. Alice doesn’t want to keep this job—she needs to. She doesn’t have it in her to find another one. She barely has anything left after what happened to Jack. Then she lost the last little bit she managed to retain when he left her.
She speaks to Paula once a week ever since they brought him home—not home from the hospital. There was a murky period that Alice barely remembers where they tried it in their own apartment—like trying to wade through mud. But, it didn’t last more than two weeks. They were doomed from the start.
But once a week—after they brought Jack from his home with his wife to his mother’s home—always Wednesday nights when Jack is at physical therapy, Alice asks Paula if he is ready to see her, and each week the same answer comes like a refrain in a song you’ve listened to a million times—“I just don’t think he’s ready yet.”
Paula’s voice is always sad and cracked, and even though it isn’t enough, Alice appreciates it. She knows Paula wants Alice and Jack to get back together, but after what her son has been through, she simply doesn’t have it in her to push him. So, she doesn’t, even when she should.
She lets him wallow, and that, she knows, will eventually let him waste away.
And, as it goes, the days have turned into weeks, and those weeks have turned into months, and the months into more than a year and Alice has turned into a shell of herself, hollow and cracked as Paula’s voice, just waiting to be filled, and the only thing she can do to keep herself from falling to pieces is to talk to the love of her life’s devastated mother once a fucking week.
“I’m going to do my best,” Alice says finally to Patti’s silence.
“You have 90 days to prove that,” Pattie replies firmly, “Or else we’ll have to let you go.”
“I understand,” Alice whispers, even though she doesn't, smoothing out her pencil skirt, the one that used to be tight on her.
She’s lost so much weight since the accident that it looks like she’s borrowed it from a fat relative. Her face has hollowed out and narrowed. Her cheekbones jut out unattractively and she’s almost entirely lost her B-cups—a teenage boy has more to show. But what does it matter? No one looks at her like that anymore.
She wishes, sickly, that she could let go of Jack as easily as it seems her job could let go of her.
Jack laughs and the sound of it surprises him. He hasn’t laughed much since the car accident. It’s partially because he never feels much like laughing, but deeper down, he realizes, miserably, that it’s more about the simple and unavoidable fact that his laugh has changed, shape shifted from its previously deep richness to something foreign and breathy.
Alice was the first one to notice it, and Jack felt like he’d been kicked in the mouth when she voiced her observation, not unkindly, with her golden-brown eyes wide. He couldn’t even remember what he laughed at—it was meaningless—but he’d flipped a switch—a switch hat he hadn’t realized at the time he’d have a hell of a hard go to flip back—quick and violent. She was holding a shitty paper cup of hospital coffee and Jack, laying in his hospital bed for what felt like the 900th day, wanted to swat it right out of her delicate hands that he’d never be able to hold again.
Eli smirks and shake his head. His facial hair has grown long—longer than Jack has ever seen it. Since he’d quit the firm last month he seemed to have forgone his daily shaving routine.
“You’ve still got it Peck,” Eli quips playfully.
“Uh huh,” Jack mumbles, nodding toward the weird IPA Eli had smuggled in, with the long straw, on the table between them. Eli lifts it and tilts the straw to Jack’s mouth so he can take a sip. The bitterness is refreshing. He hasn’t had a good beer in ages.
“The place just wasn’t the same without you,” Eli continues as Jack finishes his sip.
“Well what’s next then?” Jack asks, trying not to think of all the times Alice had asked him that—pled with him with that exact same tone. But before Eli can answer, his mom pushes open the sliding glass door. She doesn’t say anything right away, and though Jack can’t see her behind him with his limited neck movement, he knows from the tight silence that her arms are crossed tightly over her chest and her lips are drawn into a tight line.
“Come on Eli,” she nags, “time to go.”
“Mom, he hasn’t even been here that long,” Jack presses, feeling like a child, the whine in his voice irritating to even his ears.
“He’s been here plenty long,” she retorts before Eli can interject.
“Mom, come on, I just need—"
“I’m exhausted,” she argues weakly.
“Go to bed,” Jack replies, “Connor is coming.”
“Connor had to cancel.” Everything unsaid that Jack’s PCAs does for him flickers uncomfortably between the three of them in the silence. Despite himself, Jack is mortified by what Eli must be imagining without even wanting to imagine it.
“And this?” she sighs, closing the gap between the door and Jack’s half empty beer in two swift steps. “Jack, Jesus Christ.” Jack slides into the embarrassment he’s become accustomed to over the last year as he feels his face heat up.
“Sorry, Paula,” Eli half-heartedly apologizes, scratching the back of his head—a nervous habit he doesn’t know he has. “That one’s on me.”
Paula nods once but won’t look Jack in the eyes and he swears he can feel his body buzzing in frustration. It’s in his head though. A thousand calls to his doctor and his physical therapist at the slightest perceived movement or pin prick of feeling have taught him that it’s just his brain desperately trying—and ultimately failing—to contact his body from the shoulders down.
“Dude,” Jack cracks, “don’t apologize. I’m a grown man.” Who can’t take care of himself, he wanted to add in a nasty voice, but he didn’t. There’s no reason Eli and his mom had to join his fucking 24/7 pity party. Plus, they already knew he couldn’t take care of himself.
Jack drives his bulky chair forward with his sip and puff control, then backs it up diagonally to turn around to face her—to push back—he’s an adult, goddammit.
And nothing makes you feel more like an adult than having to chant it over and over in your goddamn head.
But as her face comes into view, he knows the night is already over. Eli is already standing, already leaning in to hug Paula. An understanding passes between them and it makes Jack feel like driving his chair over the edge of the deck.
“I’ll come by next week man,” Eli says as he pats Jack on the shoulder. The first time he’d seen him out of the hospital and up and about in his wheelchair he tried to go in for the hug, but Jack asked him not to the next time and he never tried again. Jack cringes at the expertly hidden but still detectable pity to the trained eye. And Jack had an exceptionally well-trained eye. He decides to take his coworker turned friend’s voice file it away in the overstuffed box where he hides all the things that keep him awake at night—outside of the fact that he gets woken up every few hours when someone comes in to turn and readjust his paralyzed body.
“Sounds good,” he offers sadly, looking down at his useless hands strapped into the molded armrests of his chair. Following his mom into the house over the little metal ramp she’d put over the bump of the threshold, he watches her open the front door for Eli and bites his lip, knowing he is about to get an earful. But when she turns around the fight goes out of her like the air out of a balloon, right in front of his eyes.
It’s only eight thirty-three at night, but wearily she takes a deep breath and says, “Come on honey, time to get you ready for bed.”
Jack is tall—well, he had been tall—before. He is always saying that word—before. And every day that passes, before drifts further and further away. Because of how tall he was, before, his chair—and his body that he now has no control over—are enormous. With a PCA it’s one thing. They’re paid and professional, with the kind of detached machine-like efficiency that helps keep Jack sane. His body is just a car in the autobody shop.
But with his mom?
He gets this ache in his throat as he sits utterly useless as she undoes his chest strap and leans into him with her shoulder—that’s about the size of Jack’s wrist—to keep him in place. She proceeds to struggle to get the Hoyer lift sling under his body, and once she does, she’s completely out of breath, her blonde hair with extensive grey roots popping out the elastic she used to keep it tied back. She presses the button to raise him out of his chair, and just like that, his little bit of independence is gone.
Jack draws on every bit of patience he has as she maneuvers him into bed to be changed. He’d never known the meaning of patience until he became a quadriplegic. Humbled doesn’t even touch on what he’d been through.
Being dependent on other people for everything was something he’d never consider. He’d been in great shape. He’d done a triathlon. He’d been able to fuck his wife the way she needed and deserved. Now he felt like a sack of potatoes that everyone had to take turns carrying. The guilt was physically crushing.
Rocking his hips back and forth, Paula slides his jeans off legs that seemed to get thinner every time he sees them. They aren’t his anymore. They belong to a stranger.
Paula then unstraps his leg bag that he wears during the day and connects his suprapubic catheter tubing to a larger overnight bag, hooking it on the side of the bed. As she rolls him over and slides a chuck under his butt for his bowel routine he closes his eyes, pretending the reason he can’t feel his body is because he’s laying the grass in Amsterdam with Alice, after they’d gone to a coffee shop and split a giant weed brownie. They’d only been dating a few months, and Alice had insisted international travel was the only way they would ever know if they could last forever. She’d brought him to Monet’s Water Lillies exhibit after the brownies and they’d tumbled out of the museum and fell into the grassy lawn of the park that led to museum. She couldn’t stop giggling, her cheeks were flushed pink, and her brown eyes were luminous and light, a yellow glow rising out of nowhere. He’d never forget the taste of her kiss—strawberry from the lip balm she’d bought at the airport. He swore he could taste it now.
And then he smells it.
“That was a good one, honey,” Paula said as she pats Jack on the shoulder and presumably proceeds to wipe his ass. He cringes like a reflex, transported to made-up memories of himself as a three-year-old (before a kid even makes memories) of his mom saying the exact same thing to him using the big-boy potty. As much as he reminds himself he’s an adult, he’s just simply not and the thought is like cyanide—it continues to poison him over and over.
He hears her head into the bathroom and knows she is preparing his enema—something he does every other fucking day. He supposes he is lucky he can’t feel anything, but Jack knows, even with his pride put aside, which was still a work in progress, he will never ever get used to the indignity. Alice claims she loves him anyway, despite all that has happened.
There can never be any love in his future without those words. And that is simply love he doesn’t want, even if he finds someone willing to give it to him. Why doesn’t she understand it? He is trying to save her. He is trying to save her from the terrible hand he’s been dealt. He is just trying to do the right thing.
Paula comes back in with the enema and slides the tube up his ass as Jack closes his eyes again. He isn’t able to sweat anymore, and they’re a fucking hassle, so showers are less frequent. So is laundry. Paula slides Jack’s sweats back over his legs and leaves the same shirt on. Connor will change them both, and shower him, tomorrow.
She does an extensive amount of stretching his limbs—up and back, to the side and down, bending and maneuvering. It will never be enough to make up for how little he actually moves, but it does help keep his body flexible enough to sit in his chair and wear clothes. When underused, the body manages to tense up like a bowstring, so tight that any real movement might snap the tendons.
They don’t talk as Paula slides compression socks over his puffy and now incredibly soft feet. They’ve dropped, so now his toes point directly down whenever his legs aren’t resting anywhere. It’s that much more depressing to Jack because it feels like even if they were to find a cure for spinal cord injuries, his body would be too far gone to support him, a guitar out of tune, a bike chain gone rusty.
She crosses his right leg over his left and heaves him onto his left side. Sticking a pillow between his knees and ankles, she pulls up the covers and tucks him. She then takes his paralyzed hands and uncurls his fingers, sliding them into specially made braces to help keep them from curling up like that for good. Velcroing them down she gently posits his hands apart from each other on the pillow in front of him, and fluffs the pillow she slid behind him. He releases a deep sigh as she kisses him on the forehead. In the early days, she’d kiss him and tell him “at least you’re alive.” That used to keep him going. But he asked her to stop saying it around the about six months ago when it was his and Alice’s 5-year wedding anniversary. She just nodded sadly and never mentioned it again.
“Mom,” Jack says as she gets to the door, her hand poised to turn off the lights. He glances at the baby monitor she’s turned on and the glowing clock, which reads 11:27, before he speaks. She cocks her head and stifles a yawn. “I can drink beer you know.” She sighs and rubs her face with her tired hands before responding, pulling herself to her full height, the lines on her face stark. Jack feels guilt slicing through him—the knife is sharp, and he’s warm butter.
“I know,” she finally concedes before flicking the lights off and leaving Jack utterly trapped in his useless body, alone with his thoughts.
They wander, as they always do, to Alice. Her face. Her lithe form. Her smile. Jack stops himself before he goes too far. He isn’t the man she married, and she doesn’t have to live her life under the crushing constraints he does—she can walk away and yet, she fucking refuses to do it. His body is broken—a useless bag of bones and flesh. Hers is strong and able, full of energy and life.
It would be cruel to keep her—like keeping a caged bird—even if thinking about that bird is the only thing that makes him happy.