Elliot could never understand how his roommate Arnie stayed so damn cheerful all the time. Arnie couldn’t even scratch his nose by himself, but he always had a dumb grin on his face. Elliot ran into Arnie in the patient lounge, where he was being fed his dinner by a nurse named Yolanda. Arnie always enjoyed being out of his room and chatting with other patients and nurses. Elliot, on the other hand, only left his room to take brief breaks when he got stuck on a problem. Sometimes wheeling himself around the floor helped him to think.
“You hungry, Elliot?” Arnie asked him. “We’ve got extra food.”
“Nah,” Elliot said. He had become much better at managing with a fork in the past months, but he still wasn’t enthusiastic about eating in public.
“Come on, Meyers... you’ve probably lost twenty pounds since I met you.”
That was accurate, but Elliot estimated that a good chunk of it was probably lost muscle mass. “I’m fine,” he insisted.
“So Yolanda, should I tell Elliot the big news?” Arnie said to the nurse.
Yolanda smiled at him. “It’s your news, Arnie.”
“What’s the news?” Elliot asked, trying to sound interested. Arnie had a tendency to get overexcited. His last “big news” was that he managed to get scrambled pieces of a porn channel on the lounge TV.
“I’m proposing to Karen tomorrow,” Arnie said.
That caught Elliot’s attention. “What?”
“I know, I can’t believe it either,” Arnie laughed. “Before all this happened, I figured I wouldn’t get married till I was at least forty. But in the last couple of months, I’ve realized that Karen is an amazing woman and I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”
It was sort of touching, and Elliot couldn’t help but feel a little bit envious of Arnie. Arnie had a woman who really cared about him and it didn’t seem to bother either of them at all that she had to play nurse for him a little bit. Elliot knew that Karen helped change Arnie’s catheter sometimes and even helped him with his bowel program, and she didn’t seem to be turned off by it at all. Sometimes at night, Elliot could hear their rapid breathing on the other side of the curtains... he figured they were making out, since Arnie couldn’t do much better than that.
If he ever wound up a high quad like Arnie, Elliot wondered who would take care of him. There certainly wouldn’t be a woman like Karen around. He hated the idea of imposing that kind of burden on his parents, and he swore to himself once again that he’d get himself into some sort of assisted living program as soon as he possibly could in that situation.
“Yolanda is going to help me,” Arnie said. “We’re hiding the engagement ring in my pudding at lunchtime. When she feeds it to me, I’ll present the ring to her with my mouth.”
“What if you swallow the ring?” Elliot asked.
“Fuck you,” Arnie said good-naturedly.
Elliot could hear the thumping of balls in the other room. It sounded like the paras were playing basketball in the gym nearby. He remembered after his first surgery, when he started rehab he saw some guys playing wheelchair basketball and thought it looked pathetic. That’s never going to be me, he had thought. Back then, he had still been hoping he might eventually be able to walk again without braces. Now he was too disabled to play wheelchair basketball, although his OT Selena had tried to convince him that he was in good shape for a quad and could probably get decent at the game if he worked on it. He wasn’t motivated to work on it though, and he wasn’t sure if he believed her anyway.
Yolanda hurried out of the room to answer a page, and Elliot and Arnie were left alone in the lounge. Arnie was eying his food, which was now out of reach for him.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Elliot asked hesitantly. Damn, this was awkward.
“Sure, shoot,” Arnie said.
“How...” Elliot took a deep breath. “How can you have a... a, you know... sexual relationship with Karen after she’s seen you...”
“Peeing into a bag?” Arnie finished for him.
Elliot swallowed. “Uh, yeah.”
Arnie smiled. “Come on, Elliot... haven’t you ever been in a relationship before?” Elliot didn’t answer that one. “You can’t be perfect all the time. Karen accepts that my body is very different now. And she still loves me.”
Elliot shook his head. “Honestly, I don’t get it.”
“What? You think I’m disgusting?” Arnie raised an eyebrow. He had the sort of look that might have threatening if he wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down. Arnie seemed like he used to be kind of a tough guy. Or at least somebody who knew how to stand up for himself.
“I’m just being realistic,” Elliot said. “I know what I look like when I’m trying to eat with these fucking splints.”
“Is this about that girl who keeps calling you?” Arnie smiled at the surprised look on Elliot’s face. “Yeah, I know about that. Look, you’ve been crippled for a long time now and the girl obviously still likes you. So what the hell is wrong with you?”
Arnie had a good point. Even when he had an accident in the bed, Lise hadn’t been turned off by him. He had done just about all he could to push her away, from yelling at her to humiliating himself in front of her, but she was still around. A better question was probably: what the hell was wrong with her? He hadn’t given Lise one good reason to like him, but for some reason, she still did. No matter what he threw at her, she kept on coming back for more. A girl like her came along only once.
“Maybe you’re right, Arnie,” Elliot said. He wondered if it was too late to tell Lise that he was crazy about her. She couldn’t have been with Barry for that long and knowing Barry, how in love with him could she possibly be by now? Maybe he still had a chance.
Who am I kidding? he thought. I’ll never have the balls to try to win her back.
Karen often came to visit Arnie late at night. While Elliot lay in bed, he could see her slipping through the shadows. Lise was pretty, but Karen was really gorgeous... Elliot figured Arnie must have been a fairly charismatic guy to attract a girl like that, because he sure didn’t have money or brains or anything else going for him. From what Elliot had gathered, it seemed like Arnie had been a total player before he got hurt.
Still, Elliot was impressed that Karen had stuck around through all this. She seemed to really care about Arnie and take his disability in stride. The nurses had a tendency to leave the curtains open between the two roommates, so Elliot had seen Arnie getting the phlegm suctioned from his mouth and the nasty pressure sore on his left buttock... there was a lot that could potentially turn off a woman. There was nothing glamorous about being a quad.
But none of that seemed to bother Karen. She came to visit nearly every day and Elliot had watched her coyly feeding him his meals, turning what might have been a humiliating process into something almost sexual—taunting him with spoonfuls of mashed potatoes. Elliot found himself getting jealous—he knew when and if he ever became a high quad, no way there was going to be a beautiful woman feeding him his meals.
That night, when Elliot saw Karen slipping into the room, he wondered if she had any inkling of what Arnie was about to do. No matter how great Karen was, Arnie was the sort of guy who loved being a bachelor and never would have considered proposing if he hadn’t become a quad. Arnie himself admitted that if not for the accident, he probably would have dumped Karen by now. Was it that the accident made him realize how great Karen was or that he was just afraid no one else would ever go out with him again?
“I brought whipped cream,” Elliot heard Karen saying from the other side of the curtains.
“What are you going to do with that, you naughty girl?”
Elliot shifted in bed, trying not to listen to the noises coming from the other side of the curtain. He still had some feeling left in his penis, but his hand limitations kept him from attempting to jerk off. It was okay to ask for a nurse’s help to bathe or shave, but never to help relieve that kind of tension. Sometimes it was more than a little bit frustrating.
Through the heavy breathing on the other side of the room, Elliot could hear Arnie whispering the words, “I love you, Karen.” It is possible for a quad to find love, Elliot realized. So why not me?
Why not, goddamn it?
On the day of Lise’s visit, Elliot felt excited for the first time since his surgery. He had been too keyed up to do any work in the morning, so after his rehab session, he went on the par course with the paraplegics. The par course consisted of doing a lap around the hospital, which was quite a big distance. Elliot had done it a couple of times during his first month of rehab, but even with his extra experience wheeling, he found to his dismay that most of the paras could kick his ass. But today he saw how much he had improved at wheeling without his fingers and he was pleased to see he was able to keep up with the others without much difficulty. Also, it was nice to go outside for some fresh air and sun. He had always been pale, but now his skin was chalk-white.
After lunch, Elliot asked if one of the nurses could shave his face. He had shaved himself a few times, but he didn’t want to be bleeding with toilet paper stuck to his face when Lise got here. A nurse named Jane accompanied him to bathroom and he stared at himself in the mirror as she lathered up his face.
“You sure you want the beard gone?” Jane asked him as she fiddled with the razor. “I think it’s cute.”
“It’s not a beard, it’s just stubble and I look like a slob,” Elliot said irritably, wishing she’d just get on with it. He hated it when the nurses started in with the phony compliments. “Shave it off.”
“Yes, sir,” Jane laughed.
With the stubble gone from his face, he looked even thinner than he had before. He was beginning to need a haircut and the circles under his eyes were evidence that he hadn’t been sleeping well recently. I really look like shit, he thought.
“You expecting company?” Jane asked.
“Just a friend,” Elliot said quickly.
“Anything else you need?”
“Yeah, could you, uh... empty my legbag for me?”
Elliot had opted for the indwelling catheter, which was more practical since he couldn’t insert it himself anymore. He also had lost all sensation in his bladder, so he had no idea when he had to go. It wasn’t so bad when someone emptied the legbag for him, although he didn’t like having to ask. It was a little more uncomfortable when he had to have the indwelling catheter changed, but that only had to happen every two weeks or so. When he got home, his father was going to be responsible for changing the catheter.
Jane left to tend to another patient, and Elliot wheeled out of the bathroom to attempt to get some work done until Lise arrived. He knew it was a lost cause though—he was much too keyed up about the visit and nervous about what he might say when he saw her. He wasn’t great with words and he didn’t know what to say to make Lise forgive him for pushing her away.
As Elliot was coming out of the bathroom, he nearly collided with Arnie. He remembered that Arnie had been planning to propose to Karen today. “Hey, congratulations,” Elliot said.
Arnie turned his chair in Elliot’s direction and glared at him. “What for? Getting dumped?”
Elliot stared at Arnie, a sinking feeling in his chest. “Karen dumped you?”
“I asked her to marry me,” Arnie began, “I had this whole speech I was going to say to her, but halfway through it she interrupts me and says she doesn’t see us being a good couple ‘long term’.” Arnie shook his head. “What a fucking sucker I am, right?”
“Maybe she’s just not ready to get married yet,” Elliot suggested.
“Or maybe she doesn’t want to spend her life with a quad,” Arnie muttered.
“I don’t think—”
“Don’t waste your breath, Meyers... she admitted it,” Arnie interrupted him. “She said she was just staying with me since the accident because she felt sorry for me. She says she doesn’t feel ‘romantically attracted’ to me anymore.”
Elliot didn’t know what to say. Arnie went on, “I guess you were right all along, Meyers. I was just kidding myself. No woman wants a guy who can’t provide for her, that she can’t live a normal life with. Look at us... we’re a couple of freaks. What woman in her right mind would have anything to do with us?”
There were tears building up in Arnie’s eyes. Elliot felt completely unequipped to comfort him and just prayed that he wouldn’t start crying. “I can’t believe that bitch dumped me!” he said. “I can’t believe I let myself fall for her like a dumbass and all the while she was thinking about how to tell me she was leaving me. I’m a fucking idiot.” The tears starting dripping from Arnie’s eyes. “That’s it, you know... I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life. I’ll be living in my fucking parents’ house till they die or get too old to take care of me.”
Arnie was crying harder now and Elliot still didn’t know what to do. Arnie’s face turned red and his cheeks were very damp. He was getting more hysterical now, and all of a sudden, his breathing began to sound irregular. Elliot heard some mucus in Arnie’s breaths and remembered that he wasn’t able to cough on his own. Arnie’s eyes filled with panic as his breaths become more labored.
“I’ll go get you help,” Elliot said, wheeling toward the door to the room. He propelled himself through the doorway and yelled in the direction of the nursing station, “We need help in here now!” When nobody responded immediately, he shouted, “Get the fuck in here! Arnie can’t breathe!”
Several nurses responded quickly after that and assisted Arnie in coughing up the phlegm that had accumulated in his chest. Elliot watched as they suctioned out Arnie’s mouth and stabilized his condition. Then they helped Arnie get back in bed and gave him a mild sedative.
Elliot watched with a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. Arnie was a mess. That could be me one day, he realized. In fact, it probably will be me one day. He felt sick.
Even if Elliot was a high quad like Arnie, he could still do math. He was getting used to the dictation programs and he felt confident that he’d still be able to work even if he couldn’t move his arms at all. Of course, there was always the hope that it wouldn’t come to that, but he had to be realistic. He had to prepare for the worst. Disabled or not, he could still be a great mathematician. Maybe one of the best of all time. God knew, he had no other distractions in his life.
But he realized now that he had been kidding himself about Lise. There was no way they could have a relationship together, even if she wasn’t serious with Barry. Maybe they could be friends, but that was it. There was no way he was going to let Lise see the down and dirty aspects of being a quad. He didn’t want her to ever feel disgusted by him. She still thought a lot of him and he intended to keep it that way.
To be continued...