By L.L. Madrid
Chin held high, Paul wheeled his way out of the bathroom. It was early, and yet today was already the best of the last four months. The newly issued motorized wheelchair helped. It was a far cry from his lime-green Kawasaki motorcycle, but it granted him the freedom to roam the ward, to look out different windows. Now, nestled between cracked ribs, a tender morsel of hope grew.
“There you are. I was afraid you fell in. I almost called the nurse.” Grandma Dottie kissed her grandson on the forehead. “I made your favorite.” She dangled a Ziploc bag of M&M cookies. They’d been Paul’s favorite when he was twelve. Not now, ten years later when he ate clean and worked out daily. Used to, he reminded himself. His firefighter dreams were among those shoved from life’s possible category into the never-gonna-happen garbage chute. The everywhere pain roiled up. It was always there, but he was learning to block it out as he had with the roaring planes over his airport-adjacent apartment.
“Do you want one?” Grandma Dottie was a frequent visitor, always bringing things like comics and treats better suited for an adolescent.
“No.” The word was spat, full and mean, but Grandma Dottie’s face remained neutral. Had she looked hurt he would’ve told her to leave. He got sick of pity faces and well-wishes early on. In the full-body-cast weeks, that meant smashing his chin against the call button to summon the nurse to throw out whomever was weeping. Now, he could move his right arm. He couldn’t lift it more than a few inches, but he could move it. The tide of pain receded, and he held onto that happy thought. I can move my arm, just enough. That was a reason to celebrate.
“Actually, I’ll have one. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’ve lost a lot of weight recently.” he nodded at the bandaged stump—or residual limb as Dr. Hakimian liked to correct Paul. But it was a stump. Calling it anything else was stupid.
Grandma Dottie smiled and held a cookie to Paul’s mouth. He took a too-big bite and chewed slowly. It was the perfect combination of gooey and crispy.
“Are you on new medication?”
Paul shook his head and opened his mouth for another bite.
“You look good today. You got that same glow you had in your prom picture. You looked so handsome in that tux. Who was the girl you went with? Melody?”
He felt the heat creeping up his neck all the way to his ears. “Water, please.”
Weeks ago, before he could hold his dick, a young nurse had answered his page when he had to piss. As she’d positioned his penis in the portable urinal, his balls tightened and his shaft became hard. They both burned red. Erection underway, it took a tortuously long time for pee to stream. The young nurse had never returned, and for that Paul was grateful. He hadn’t thought of the deeper meaning of that humiliating moment until today, when the orderlies placed him in the wheelchair, granting him the ability to shut a door. To be alone.
He released the straw from his mouth. “Thanks, Grandma.”
“Your color’s much better. Not so pasty. Are they giving you more red meat? I told the nurse you could use some iron.”
Paul sat taller. He flexed his right hand simply because he could.
“You’re smiling.” Grandma Dottie’s hand flew to her heart. A tear slipped down her cheek. “I was afraid you’d never…It’s been so long since…”
For once Paul didn’t mind the waterworks. He was grinning now. Not ashamed, hell, he was proud. Since they scraped him off the asphalt, he’d had no dignity. Couldn’t scratch his nose or wipe his own ass. Today he’d reached a milestone. Found one of those damn glimmers of hope the counselor had told him to watch for.
“I masturbated. It was amazing.”
“Oh…my…I guess that’s nice, dear.”
“It was. Very nice.”
They both laughed. He’d had worse days.