After a little hiatus, I'm back with a shorter piece. It’s a devvy quad story just for you guys, which I'll post over the next several weeks. (Won’t be on Amazon.) If you like it, I might be motivated to write a few more shorter pieces. Please, would love feedback!
High School Reunion
Three months ago, my patient Ethan Richardson dove headfirst into the shallow end of a swimming pool. He broke his neck, and now, at the age of 17, he’s been told that he’s going to be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. He’s never going to walk again. He’s never going to be able to use his hands again. If he’s lucky, he’ll be able to feed himself. Maybe someday in the future, he’ll even be able to dress and bathe himself again. But probably not for a while. Especially if he doesn’t get more serious about his rehab.
Lucky for Ethan, his occupational therapist is Laura Mancini. She’s one of the best we’ve got. She’s the kind of OT who comes into the room and drags you out of bed, whether you like it or not. She knows how to kick your ass.
So it says a lot about Ethan that Laura is ready to throw up her hands and give up on the kid. And that’s when she shows up at my office.
“You’ve got to talk to him, Ryan.” She plants her hands on her slim hips. She’s wearing a pair of tight-fitting purple scrubs that cling to her hips. “He might listen to you.”
“He usually doesn’t,” I point out.
She shakes her head and the blond ponytail planted high in the back of her head swishes back-and-forth. It’s unbelievably sexy, but I try not to notice. “He acts like he doesn’t. But he respects you. Trust me. I think you’re going to get through to him eventually.”
“Sure, I’ll talk to him,” I say. Because it’s hard to say no to Laura. Especially for me.
Ethan isn’t going to listen to me though. Shit, it isn’t like I haven’t been trying to get him to listen for the last month. I’m not making any better progress than Laura is. But my job is to listen to patients like Ethan. To counsel them. I’ve even got a degree in it. So an hour later, I’m at Ethan‘s room. To try to talk some sense into the kid.
When I get to Ethan‘s room, I can see the situation is pretty bad. First of all, he’s in a hospital gown. In rehab, you’re not supposed to be lying around in a hospital gown. He should be in a T-shirt and either gym shorts or sweatpants. I bet Laura put in her best effort to get him dressed, but Ethan undoubtedly fought like a banshee. I can just picture it. No fucking way. What’s the point?
His greasy dark hair is a testament to the fact that she didn’t have better luck getting him in the shower. The kid is in bed all day, either watching TV or messing around with his phone or staring listlessly at the wall. I had recommended a course of antidepressants, but he doesn’t want that either.
When Ethan sees me at the door, he lets out at an exaggerated groan. He hates everyone here, and I’m his least favorite person of all. He rolls his eyes in a gesture that I imagine might have made his friends giggle back in the day. Before he had his accident, Ethan was about to be a senior in high school. And he was a cool kid. One all the girls used to like. You can tell from looking at his floppy black hair and brooding expression.
The whole thing is so familiar, it makes me dizzy.
“What do you want this time?” Ethan snorts. “Aren’t you done shrinking my head?”
“If you want me to leave you alone,” I say, “you need to get dressed and get out of bed when the therapists tell you to.”
“Yeah, what’s the point?”
“What’s the point?” I repeat. I’m acting like we haven’t had this exact conversation 100 times before. Like the outcome won’t be exactly the same this time as last time. “The point is, you have a chance to be more independent. And you’re blowing it if you lie in bed all day.”
“Independent.” He snorts again. “What? You mean I have a chance to be able to dress myself again? To roll around town in a cripplemobile? Wow. Incredible.”
Ethan presses the button on his bed that makes the head of the bed go up, since he can’t sit up on his own anymore. His dark brown eyes rake over my body, and I feel that uncomfortable self-conscious feeling that I get more than I’d like, even around here.
“Do you know why I don’t want to do any therapy, Ryan?” he says.
I lift an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Because of you.” His eyes bore into me. “Because when I look at you, I feel sick.”
I push my palms into the pushrims of my chair. That’s how I move it—with my palms because my fingers don’t work any better than Ethan’s do. But unlike him, I’m used to it. I haven’t been able to move my hands in nearly 10 years.
That’s part of the reason they hired me here in the rehab. There are plenty of social workers with a degree in counseling who are as good or better than I am, but they picked me because the patients could relate to me. Because I’m in a chair for the rest of my life just like them. And I’m independent—I live alone, I’ve got a job—all stuff that seemed impossible when I was 18 years old and broke my neck playing football.
I’m an inspiration. And that’s my job as much as talk therapy. To just exist and show patients that your life doesn’t go to shit just because you got a spinal cord injury.
“Why do you feel sick when you look at me?” I say to Ethan.
“Sorry, Ryan.” But he doesn’t look sorry. “I know you’re supposed to be this shining example of what we can achieve, but if you’re the shining example, I don’t want any part of it. Your life sucks.”
I know what he’s doing. He’s trying to get to me. But it’s not going to work. “My life doesn’t suck. I promise you.”
“Come on.” He shakes his head. “I mean, look at you.”
I don’t look at myself that often. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I look at my face when I shave in the morning. And in the bathroom mirror when I’m washing my hands after I dump out my catheter bag. I do own a full length mirror at home, but I look in it maybe once a month.
I’m not going to lie – the sight of my appearance shakes my confidence. I wish my hands didn’t look so atrophied and useless. I wish my forearms weren’t so skinny. I wish I didn’t have the gut of a middle-aged drunk guy. I wish I didn’t tend to slump in my chair due to the lack of muscles in my trunk.
I think it bothers me more because I used to have such a perfect physique before I got hurt. I was a football player. A Quarterback. The only guy in my high school class who got recruited to play at the college level. I went to the gym almost every day. I was in perfect physical condition. And now…
Christ, I’m letting this kid get to me. This is his game. He’s trying to shake me up. I can’t let him win. I’m the adult and the professional.
“Nobody’s life is perfect,” I say, resisting the urge to straighten out my legs in the footrests. I’m probably due for a weight shift soon as well, but that can wait a few more minutes. “But I enjoy my life. And you can too, Ethan. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but—”
“What part of your life do you enjoy so much?” he blurts out. “Is it this shitty job when you get to listen to cripples whine all day? Because it’s definitely not your rocking social life.”
I feel myself getting a little hot under the collar. “Ethan…”
“Tell me, Ryan. When is the last time you fucked a girl?”
My mouth falls open. Not that I should be that surprised. Male patients ask me about sex all the time. It’s one of the first things you think about when you realize you can’t feel your dick anymore. Is that it? Is my sex life over?
“That’s none of your business,” I say in as a controlled a voice as I can.
He flops his head against the pillow. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Girls don’t want to fuck a guy who can’t feel most of his body, who can barely get it up. At least I’m honest about the situation.”
“I’ve had girlfriends, Ethan,” I say, which is true. But not many. And it’s been a while. A long while.
“I see the way you look at Laura,” he says. “And I see the way she looks at you. Like you’re a eunuch or something.”
I suck in a breath. Because goddamnit, he’s right. The bastard is surprisingly intuitive.
Yeah, I got a thing for Laura. That’s why I come running whenever she asks for my help. What can I say? She’s cute, she’s funny, and she’s a badass. She’s my ideal woman.
A few months ago, a bunch of us went out for drinks after work. By the end, it was just me and Laura. Once I had a little alcohol in my system, I started feeling pretty good about myself. My body wasn’t as good as it used to be, yes, but there is nothing wrong with me from the shoulders up—I’d even go so far to say I’m a decent looking guy. And since we were sitting down, I could look her in the eyes, instead of being boob-height like I usually am. As I was finishing my beer, I thought about making a move. I thought she was giving me some pretty strong signals. But then all of a sudden, she started talking about her boyfriend.
Except I had already checked and she didn’t have a boyfriend. So.
She saved us both some embarrassment. I guess I’m grateful.
“What do you want me to say?” I finally do the weight shift I’ve been needing to do the whole time I’ve been in here. I do it every 10 to 15 minutes, to avoid getting pressure sores. I just shift my body in the chair real quick, and let it fall back into place. I’m glad I have just enough strength to do it, because if I didn’t, I need to be in a power wheelchair with pressure relief. “My life isn’t perfect. But it’s good. I’m proud of everything I’ve achieved. I’m not ashamed of being a quadriplegic.”
“Yeah? Then why don’t you want to go to your high school reunion?”
Once again, this kid has managed to take me by surprise. I didn’t realize he overheard the conversation I was having a few days ago with a coworker about the invite I received for my 10 year high school reunion. I didn’t even hesitate before tossing it in the trash. No way. Didn’t even consider it.
“It’s not on a good night for me,” I say. It’s the same lie I told to my coworker.
“What’s wrong? Does it conflict with your busy TV schedule?”
I shoot him a dirty look. Although I can’t say I don’t spend most of my evenings watching television alone.
“Just admit it.” Ethan rubs at his nose with the back of his hand. It’s the same way I scratch my nose, and it’s only when I see somebody else do it that I recognize how odd it looks. “You don’t want to go to the reunion because you don’t want people you knew in high school to see you like this. Same way I don’t want to go back to high school in a fucking wheelchair.”
“That’s not true.”
“The fuck it isn’t.”
I take as deep breath as I can manage these days. The muscles in my rib cage don’t work the way they used to. “Fine. What if I make you a deal?”
He narrows his eyes at me. “What kind of deal? Don’t offer me McDonald’s like my mom does.”
“I’ll go to my high school reunion tomorrow night if you get serious about your rehab.”
Ethan frowns. “Wow. You must really care about my rehab to humiliate yourself like that.”
I want to say that he’s wrong. That it won’t be a terrible, humiliating experience. But who am I kidding? “Yeah, well.”
“I want to see pictures.”
“I can get you pictures.”
This is the moment when two other people might have shaken hands on the deal, but neither of us are capable of shaking hands anymore in the traditional sense. But I hold out my fist, and he’s able to bump it. So we’ve got a deal.
When you’re in high school and you’ve got frizzy hair and a retainer and thick glasses and 15 extra pounds of baby fat and your idea of a good time is a pizza party to celebrate winning a math team competition, it’s only natural to dream about the future. You dream about losing that extra weight, getting in shape, learning how to use makeup and hair care products and contact lenses, and then coming back to your high school reunion 10 years later. And everyone will say: Who is that girl? Is that really little Hannah Leonard?
That’s the dream.
And baby, I am living the dream.
I’ve got on a tight little black dress that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. I’m wearing 3 inch heels that make my legs look a mile long. My hair is blonde and silky, to the point where you’d have to be crazy not to want to run your hands through it. Even I can’t stop touching my hair.
I look hot. So much hotter than I was ever capable of looking when I was in high school or college. Over the last few years, I finally have turned myself into the kind of beautiful woman I always envied.
I cannot wait to go to my high school reunion tonight.
My phone buzzes on the dresser next to me. I glance over at the screen and see a text from Jean: 10 minutes away.
Jean Asher was my best friend in high school, and we still keep in touch. Jean and I used to do everything together – we were in all the same nerdy clubs, and neither of us kissed a boy during the entire four years of high school. But over the last few years, Jean has seemed less enthusiastic about getting together.
Still. I consider her one of my closest friends, and it was her idea we go together tonight. She even offered to drive.
I teeter outside in my heels and find Jean outside in her Toyota. I slide into the passenger seat, although it’s a bit hard to sit in this dress. Looking gorgeous can be very uncomfortable. But it’s worth it tonight. As long as I don’t split a seam.
“You look great,” Jean comments.
“So do you,” I say. But I don’t entirely mean it. I’ve lost some weight since high school, but Jean has gone in the opposite direction. She’s wearing something black and shapeless, and she’s got her hair pulled back in a severe bun.
She starts the car and my stomach does flip-flops as we make the drive to the old high school. Jean and I used to drive in together all the time, so it really reminds me of the old days, even though I live further away now. I’m excited to see my old classmates and show them how much I’ve changed, but most of all, there’s one person I’m looking forward to seeing:
“He might not even be there,” Jean points out. We may not see each other much anymore, but she still knows what I’m thinking.
I pick at a loose thread on my dress, which is riding dangerously high up my legs. “I know.”
When I close my eyes, I can still picture Ryan Porter’s face. Shaggy dark blonde hair. Clear blue eyes. The tiny cleft in his chin. The way he looked when I would pass the yard after school and see him all dressed up for football practice. And even though I was just a nerdy math team geek, he would wave to me. And the right side of his mouth would turn up in a smile meant just for me.
I bet he still looks every bit as amazing. My heart starts to speed up at the thought of it.
“But I bet he’ll come,” Jean says. “He was so popular and he had a million friends. I bet he wants to see them all.”
I nod. It’s what I’m counting on.
She raises an eyebrow. “You’re really going to go through with this, Hannah?”
“Absolutely,” I say.
I see her chewing on her lip as she keeps her eyes on the road. “Are you sure it’s a good idea?”
“Don’t try to talk me out of it, OK?”
That’s right—after 10 years, I’m going to see Ryan Porter, my high school crush. It’s the moment I’ve been dreaming of for a very long time.
And I am going to make that boy pay.
To be continued...