Saturday, August 1, 2020

Will You?

 Alice wakes up to breakfast. 


The sounds and smells of sizzling bangers and percolating coffee fill the small flat. She lies there for a moment, assessing whether or not the smells wafting in from the kitchen are going to make her puke before opening her eyes.


The morning light is soft. The sky is still pale blues and inky purples. It must be early. Figures. She always wakes up at an ungodly hour when she drinks too much. She tries sitting up, and is pleasantly surprised her head isn’t spinning. Gingerly, she swings her legs over the side of the bed and stands. Things are good until she bends down to retrieve her dress from last night. 


“Nope,” she jerks upright as bile immediately starts to fill her mouth. “Bad idea. That was a bad idea.”


Her own clothes are scattered about on the floor, and since picking them up is a no-go at the moment, she ducks into the bathroom instead. It’s clean, but cluttered. Definitely a man’s bathroom without a hint of a female touch. A razor sits haphazardly on the edge of the sink. One end of a discarded medical package sticks out of the trash bin, the clear plastic tubing inside clearly visible. There’s a bottle of extra strength ibuprofen next to his single, solitary toothbrush. 


She grabs the robe that’s hanging from the waist-high level hook near the walk-in shower and slips into, tying it loosely. After a moment of deliberation, she chances a glance at her reflection in the mirror. Not much she can do here, but better to assess the damage than willfully ignore it. Smudged mascara seems to be the worst of it. With a sigh, she takes some toilet paper, wets it, and rubs at her skin. 


“Would be nice to not have to do it like this,” she grumbles.  


While she works on making her smudged eyes look less smudgy, she can hear him in the kitchen. A scraping noise, followed by a springy thud sound. That’s the oven door closing. A moment later metal on metal and water running. They haven’t even had breakfast yet and Theo’s already cleaning up. 


She tosses her makeshift makeup wipe into the toilet and then heads into the kitchen. Sure enough, there he is, sitting in front of the sink, washing dishes. From the looks of it, he’s used every cooking utensil in his kitchen. The sink is full and the countertop is covered, but the small table is set for a feast for two. Bangers, eggs, toast, some fruit. The whole kit and caboodle. 


The breakfast spread looks amazing and smells even better, but what catches and keeps her attention are his bare shoulders. The sight makes her stomach flip in the best way–last night is still very fresh in her mind–and her aggravation from earlier is momentarily forgotten. With a mischievous grin, she discards the robe that she went to the trouble of finding, and tosses it onto the back of the couch. Then she pads quietly across the room and slips her arms around him. 


“Mmm, the rest of you is bare, too, I see,” she murmurs into his ear. 


There’s the briefest of pauses, then he drops the bowl he’d been scrubbing into the sink and spins around to face her. His eyes widen disbelievingly–Alice isn’t usually this cheeky, hungover or sober–especially these days. His hands are still soapy and dripping with water, but he doesn’t take the time to dry them. Instead he grabs her by the hips and tugs her down into his lap. 


Now he’s the one wrapping his arms around her, pulling her close for a kiss. She wraps one leg around the back of his wheelchair and tucks the other one, nestling her foot halfway underneath his thigh. The movement and her weight on his lap cause his legs to spasm, but neither of them pay much attention to that. 


“I could get used to mornings like this,” he says, a bit breathless, as she finally pulls away. He’s grinning like the Cheshire Cat. She’s grinning, too, actually, quite pleased with herself. So pleased that she almost stays naked for breakfast. But propriety–and a little bit of pettiness–gets the better of her and, so, she dons the robe again before settling into her seat at the table. 


“Me too.” She watches as he uses his hands to lift his legs, adjusting them from where they slipped off the flootplate during their makeout session. “Minus the hangover. I’m too old for this.” 


He chuckles–just a small exhalation of hot air–as he hands her a cup of coffee. 


“Mmm,” she closes her eyes, holds the cup close to her face, and lets the steam warm it before taking a big sip. “That’s the stuff.” 


She expects him to make some sort of quip, and when he doesn’t she opens her eyes. He looks on edge, then clears his throat. The telltale sign of nervousness. She arches an eyebrow at him in question. 


“You could have ‘the stuff’ every morning, you know.”


Ah. There’s the quip. She smiles, but it’s droll. “Hard to have it every morning when most mornings we wake up in different flats, Theo.”


It’s an old argument. The only argument. The one that permeates and infects everything between them lately. Heat rises to his face and he sighs, heavily, before pivoting his chair and wheeling back in the direction of the bedroom. 


She looks down at her coffee. And there goes what could have been a really nice morning. 


Maybe she should ease up a little. After all, nothing seems to be changing. What good has her animus done? It has been years and she’s still using toilet paper with spit as makeup wipes instead of keeping a pack here. Still shoving a travel sized toothbrush into her purse every time they go out. Still wearing his ugly terry cloth robe instead of her blue silk one because the terry cloth one is His and it’s Here and her blue one is Hers and it’s Not. 


The squeak of the rubber tires of his chair on the hardwoods pull her out of her reverie. Theo is back, looking decidedly unsure. Very unlike him. He uses his arms to brace himself, then lifts his butt, shifting position. His version of nervously shuffling from foot to foot.  


“I was going to do this at breakfast,” he tells her, shifting again. This time, the sunlight, brighter now and not so soft anymore, catches, making something glint, and draws her eye to his hand. There’s something clutched tightly in his left hand, but she can’t tell what it is. Nonetheless, her heart is now pounding at a rate that matches her throbbing head. 


He opens his hand. “Will you?” 


“Will I?” she echoes, not quite believing her ears or her eyes. 


“Will you?” he repeats as he slides a silver key across the table. 


And tied to it is a simple diamond wedding band. 



Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Set of Robes

 Theo wakes up to Alice. 


She’s facing him, one arm tucked underneath her pillow and the other hand under her cheek. Her eyes are closed and she’s still breathing rhythmically, deep in the throes of sleep. There are some flecks of dried black mascara dotting her cheeks and the pillow. Theo grins wryly. She’ll hate that when she wakes up.


He shifts, trying to move lightly and without waking her up. Easier said than done, that. He uses his arms to push himself up into a sitting position and then leans back against the headboard. He didn’t go as hard as Alice did last night, but his head is still spinning a little this morning. He sighs. Getting up is the last thing he wants to do right now, but he’s got a schedule to keep. 


God. How he misses the days of getting pissed and just having a good lie-in the next day. He’s at the age where most of his mates complain about kids waking them on the weekends–which honestly sounds worse than having to wake up for his morning routine. At least he doesn’t also have to share the flat with anyone while nursing a hangover. 


Well. 


He shoves his side of the duvet back and tucks the excess snuggly around Alice. Then he uses his hands to move his legs out from underneath the covers and his arms to shift over to the waiting wheelchair. A jolt of pain shoots through his shoulder and he lands in the seat with a plop. 


He looks at Alice again, still soundly sleeping, despite the fact he’s dragging himself rather ungracefully out of bed this morning. A smile creeps over his face. The days of nursing hangovers alone are coming to an end.


It doesn’t take him long in the bathroom. Cath, shave, splash some water on his face, brush his teeth, done. He starts to grab the robe but as he reaches for it he envisions another one, blue and silky and elegant hanging right beside his own threadbare terry cloth one, and it gives him pause. They’ve taken this whole thing at a snail’s pace. It’s been years–a whole lifetime, really, since he got hurt only months after they started dating–but he’s finally ready to see a set of robes hanging in his bathroom, instead of just one.


He leaves the robe behind. 


“Let’s see,” he mutters, wheeling across the flat with smooth, practiced strokes.  He peers into the fridge. Some bananas with spots and a package of bangers nearing expiration. Sheer dumb luck he’s got more than protein powder, a carton of eggs, and coffee, but he’ll take it. Maybe making a good fry-up will make him feel better about how mucked up last night got. 


It was going to be a Big Thing. Perfect. Memorable–and in the best way possible. Dinner at Dishoom, then off to drinks at the pub where they’d first met. But what he’d forgotten is that the pub had closed last year. Some pizza chain had taken over the building. It was garish, red, very bright. Not at all the sentimental vibe he was going for. And with that, the entire night took a different turn. 


He should have done it anyway. But he didn’t. Instead, he suggested they duck into a different place. There they met up with friends. Drank far too much. Stumbled home. And the key and the ring stayed secure in the pocket of his coat. 


He sighs. If he could, he’d give something a swift kick right about now. Probably the fridge or cabinet. Get all of his frustration at his inaction out that way. Instead he just cracks half a dozen eggs into a bowl and whisks them furiously.  


From the bedroom, he hears Alice beginning to stir. Time to get the coffee going. He sets the well-whisked eggs aside and reaches for the pot. It’s gotten pushed too far back on the counter and now he has to contort his arm at an awkward angle to reach it.


“Ach,” he hisses as a pang shoots through his shoulder again, this time worse. It isn’t unusual for his body to hurt–aches and pains come with the territory–but this kind of pain is something different. And in his fucking shoulder, too.  


It all comes back to him as he searches the bathroom for extra-strength ibuprofen. Alice, looking down at him with a sly grin, then falling into his lap. She’d wrapped her arms around his shoulders, demanded to be carried the three blocks back to his flat, and promised quite the reward if he acquiesced. 


And she did deliver. 


“Here’s to more nights like those,” He throws his head back and swallows the pain pills. So last night wasn’t right. Perhaps this morning would be. The key and ring are still in his coat pocket. But not for long. He pauses in the doorway of the bathroom, smiling as he watches Alice sleep. “And more mornings like these.” 





Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Boy in the Garden — I

 THE BOY IN THE GARDEN


CHAPTER I.


I was seven when I was taken to Misselthwaite. As the car neared the castle through the gravel path between the tall, dry from winter trees, I’d been impressed, overwhelmed by the sight that looked so much like the beautifully illustrated books mother would read me not so long before she died, in worlds of princesses and dragons, and I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. A first impression, because then, after being dropped off with a single bag and a doll tightly pressed against my side, I thought it looked somehow cold, bare, with vines growing on the stone walls outside, uncared and untamed, just like I would be in the years I spent there.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Through the Door

 

    My hands are sweaty. I rub them on my navy dress pants and glance at the clock. 

    2:26. 

    My heart starts beating faster, and it's so loud, I'm sure he'll hear it the moment he arrives. I bounce my knees up and down, trying to get the nerves and the jitters out of my system before he gets here. Three minutes later I hear the door alarm sound. Any second now he'll be walking through that door. 

    Well, not... walking, per se. 

    At exactly 2:30 the door opens. I want to make this introduction as least awkward as possible, so I remain seated in my chair, and wait for him to come to me. I look around the room, my eyes landing on the three framed degrees that hang above the beige settee, moving to the artificial plant sitting beside the window, then settling on the brass nameplate that sits on my desk. It needs to be cleaned. 

    I look everywhere except at him as he slowly makes his way towards me. His approach is conspicuous, accompanied by the squeak of rubber tires on hardwood floors, a gentle but rhythmic hiss and puff, and the whir of a small electric motor. Eventually, he stops. Finally--and for the first time--I look up. 

    The first thing I notice are his eyes. They’re intense and icy blue, and already I can see a myriad of emotions swirling within them, perhaps mirroring my own. It surprises me that his eyes are the first thing I notice, but maybe it’s a good thing. For a moment, they manage to distract me and ground me; I remember what we’re doing here. 

    Without breaking his gaze, I extend my hand across the space between us. “I’m Dr. Ruth Andrews.”

     He smiles, rueful and hard. He turns his blue eyes downward, giving my hand a pointed look. 

    “Yeah, mine...don’t really work...anymore,” he says. His voice is deep and throaty, rough around the edges. But it is also accented by a slur caused by muscle weakness in his face and punctuated by the breaths the ventilator forces him to take. 

    Oh, god. I can’t believe I just did that. I’m so wound up. Heat immediately rises to my face.

     I lower my hand. Then I rub my burning face self-consciously. 

     Suddenly, he laughs. The rich sound penetrates the uncomfortable silence growing between us. 

     “I’m just... mess...messing around,” he says with a wicked smile as he raises his left arm and extends it towards me. The movement comes mostly from his shoulder. His hand hangs limply at his wrist and his fingers are soft looking and curl into a loose fist. Once again, I extend my hand. His grasp is weak, but the feeling of his limp fingers against mine raise goosebumps of pleasure on my hot flesh. 

     “Well, kind of,” he amends as we shake hands. “I’m Mack...Thanks for seeing...me, Doc.” 

     I glance at the clock. It’s only been five minutes since he entered my office. It took less time than that for me to realize I am both smitten and doomed.

*******

    For the next six weeks I try to tone down my little…quirk.  

    But then Thursday rolls around again, and Mack comes into my office again, and it’s all I can do to contain myself. I’m on such a high and I just want to sit there and drink in the sight of him. 

    Mack is broad shouldered and his legs are long. I bet if he could stand he’d be well over six feet. I try to imagine him running. That was once his favorite thing to do. He used to travel the country running. His goal was to run a marathon in each of the fifty states before he turned forty. But then, a couple of weeks before his thirty-sixth birthday, with twelve states and twelve marathons left, he started noticing that he felt weak and uncoordinated. It wasn’t long before he started having trouble speaking. But it wasn’t until he started to get short of breath from just walking -- and running became impossible -- that he went to the doctor. 

    It didn’t matter. He could have gone immediately; he could have waited another six months. The diagnosis would have been the same.

    Even though I know his history, I find it hard to imagine Mack like that. Muscular. Robust. Active. I try -- I really do! -- to imagine that man. But it’s hard. Because those aren’t the images of a man I would have lusted after. 

    No, I much prefer the man sitting in front of me right now. He’s reclined in an electric wheelchair with a thick black strap across his chest and lap to support his limp body since he lacks the muscles to even sit up on his own anymore. There’s a plastic plug at the center of the base of his neck, a tracheostomy, that connects to a ventilator that he finds himself using more and more as he grows weaker and weaker. 

    As he talks about the latest development -- he’s losing strength in his hands, especially the one he uses to drive his chair -- and how despite the expiration date that he’s afraid looms before him, he still wants to try dating and try finding love, my heart constricts. I’m his therapist. I shouldn’t be harboring these feelings. I shouldn’t be undressing Mack in my head, imagining what his naked body would look like. The body that he finds so disdainful. The body I can't tear my eyes away from.

    I became a therapist to help people; not hurt them. I’ve never told anyone my secret. But while Mack continues to talk, and the cadence of his low voice washes over me like a smooth scotch, I have never wanted to share it with anyone as badly as I do with this man right now. 

    Maybe it would be good. For both of us. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt at all. 

    But maybe it would. 

    So, I don’t share it. I just continue to listen. I make notes and highlight subjects that we should circle back to next week. I give him some coping mechanisms straight out of a textbook. Eventually the timer sounds and our sessions ends. And just like I do every week, I get up from my perch on the beige settee -- the settee that my patients usually sit on -- and open the door and watch unabashedly while Mack maneuvers his way out of the room.

    It takes him some time to close the small distance between us because he has to stop frequently, even the small effort of gripping and moving the joystick tiring him out and leaving him feeling breathless because, lately, he refuses to use the ventilator during our sessions. I feel naughty and voyeuristic as the heat between my legs intensifies as he wheels past me and says, voice weak and beginning to slur, “See you next...week, Doc.”

*******

    Another four weeks pass; another four sessions go off without a hitch.  

    It’s at the end of our twelfth session that I finally come to my senses. 

    I can’t do this anymore,” I whisper as he wheels past me while I hold the door open. 

    Mack stops. He slowly tilts his head up to look at me, and the expression on his face isn’t the anger, or disappointment, or confusion I expected. Instead, his handsome face is decidedly blank. 

    “Why?” he asks.

    “You’ve got to find a new therapist,” I tell him, avoiding his question. He doesn’t say anything else, just stares at me for a long time with those piercing blue eyes. Finally, he gives me a curt nod. Then he propels his chair forward to the far side of my office waiting room where one of his PCA’s is waiting. 

    It’s only after he’s left that I realized the question he asked wasn’t “What?” but “Why?” 

    And I ask myself the same thing.

*******

    I exist in a perpetual state of self-inflicted misery for another week before I even begin to consider the option. I think about it all the time, find myself debating and bargaining with my conscience. Tick marks quickly collect in the “DO NOT DO IT” column; only one gets placed under “do.” I take a good long look at my only reason, my only justification: that it might make us both happy, and dial the contact number from his file before I lose my nerve.  

    “Hello?” 

    The voice on the other end of the line is low and gravelly. It sounds thick and more slurred than usual, like my phone call might have woken him up. In the background I can hear the hiss and puff of the ventilator and the low sounds of a TV. 

    Normally, I would apologize profusely. I’d probably hang up. But tonight I don’t. Instead, I start speaking before I chicken out. “I’m sorry.”  

    Mack sighs. “There’s no way...that this is--” 

    “It’s extremely unethical,” I cut him off and assure him. I take a deep, steadying breath. “But really, the entire thing was unethical from the start.” 

    To my surprise, he begins to laugh quietly. “Doc…,” he begins and then pauses. When he starts talking again, his voice is shaky. “Ruth, you’re a…. terrible…,” his words are starting to slur more, his speech is worse than I’ve ever heard it, and I attribute it to tiredness. Maybe nerves, too. “A terrible... actress. You... know that?”

    “I’m--you knew?” My heart races as I realize what he’s telling me. “You’ve known all this time?” 

    “Yes,” I hear a faint rustle in the background, and I realize he’s nodding. “You wear... your heart on your... sleeve and your poke--," the ventilator cuts his words off, "--poker face... sucks.” 

    My voice is small when I ask, “How did you know?” 

    “Please.” He laughs full out this time. It’s a pleasant sound that reminds me of the first day we met. “Your face... flushed and your... breath hitch...hitched every... time I moved. Hell...every time I even... enter...entered the room.

    I can’t believe what I’m hearing. 

    “I thought it was embarrass…,” his words are once again cut off by the ventilator. I hear a weak, but angry sounding huff on the other end of the phone, and I know he's growing frustrated. A beat later, after the machine supplies another breath for him, he continues, “embarrassment or.... discomfort at first.” 

    Mack pauses then, and I hear the faint rustle of fabric again. I picture him shrugging, a small twitch of his broad shoulders. 

    The silence between us is long and heavy. 

    When he speaks again, his voice is low and husky; his words intentional. It feels like our first meeting all over again, because with two small words he’s consumed the part of me that yearns for this—for him. “Come here.”  

*******

    "Come here." 

    He repeats the words to me again as I hesitate in the doorway to his bedroom. Mack’s wheelchair sits empty, and he lies in bed right before my eyes. He’s had his nighttime PCA disconnect the ventilator and his chest rises and falls shallowly. He gestures with his wrist and motions for me to come forward. 

    My palms are sweaty, and my heart is beating fast. If I were not so tightly coiled right now, I would laugh because in a way we’ve come full circle. The only difference now is that I’m the one walking through the door.

    Mack watches me with heavy eyes as I cross the room in four steps. Once I’m beside his bed, he turns his head toward me. The effort looks like it costs him an extraordinary amount of energy and he closes his eyes for a moment, his breathing heavy and labored. Eventually he opens his eyes. Glancing up at me with hooded eyes, he whispers, “Prop me...up a bit.” 

    I swallow hard. 

    Mack instructs me on what to do. I lift his shoulders and gently stuff some pillows behind them. His chest is naked underneath the covers—much to my delight—and his shoulders seem even broader. Just touching him sends an electric buzz through my body. As I make sure the pillows are secure underneath him, I hear my breathing grow ragged and feel the space between my legs grow warm. 

    Mack hears it too. He smiles knowingly.

    Slowly, I lower his shoulders back onto the pillow. I’m leaning so close over him, surely violating every ethics clause that exists…but also fulfilling every fantasy I’ve ever had…and I can feel his own breath, hot on my neck. Without saying a word, he weakly hooks his wrist around my arm and gently tugs. He can’t do much, but it’s enough to indicate that he wants me to come closer. 

    Our gazes meet and the intense desire in his eyes shocks me. 

    He wants this as much I do. 

    A sense of acceptance mixed with relief washes over me as I process that. Suddenly, a renewed sense of confidence enters my being. 

    I place my hand on his chest. Underneath it, I can feel his heart beating rapidly. 

    I lean forward slightly -- closing the distance that he cannot -- so that our lips are centimeters apart, and I close my eyes slowly, preparing for all of the pleasure that is sure to come.