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.