“Oh, come on, Moira, let it rest.”
Dr. Moira McTaggart, of the Columbia Presbyterian Spinal Cord Injury Clinic, folded her hands atop her desk. “What are you complaining about? I just told you you’re going to get back massages three days a week. Not seeing the problem here.”
“I’d just rather not.” Charles shifted in his wheelchair, trying to compensate for the twitching in his lower back that presaged cramps – then, too late, realized he was making Moira’s argument for her. “Maybe we could hold off and see?”
“You’ve been having problems for a while now, Charles. How much longer do you want to hold off?”
Charles leaned his head forward into his hand. “I’ve been having problems for eighteen months, to be precise. I don’t foresee an end to them. What’s one more?”
Moira rose from her chair to come around her desk and perch on the corner nearest him. It had been a long time since he’d called her Dr. McTaggart, or since she’d treated him like any other patient – but in some ways their friendship made her more formidable, not less. There was no hiding anything from her. “I thought that fighting spirit of yours was back.”
She’d talked about his “fighting spirit” the first time they ever spoke – five days after the crash, in his initial hours of consciousness. Without that spirit, Moira said, Charles would never have survived long enough to be extracted from the wreckage of his car, much less made it through the eleven-hour surgery that followed. And even then – lying there with his eyes swollen shut and every rib broken – Charles had felt he was willing to keep up the fight.
What no one had told him then was that the fight lasted forever. It wasn’t just a matter of making it through the next three operations, or the two months of hospitalization, or that first grueling physical therapy session, or even the trial of the drunk driver who’d hit him. Charles was still coming to terms with the fact that every single day was a struggle.
Last winter – last winter had been hard. One day as he tried to maneuver his wheelchair along an ice-crusted street, the wheel of his chair had gotten lodged in a rut of frozen snow, and the New Yorkers around him steadfastly didn’t see him struggling – and Charles had, for a moment, wondered why he kept teaching at NYU, why he didn’t stay at home in Westchester with a private nurse and a cellar full of Malbec, even why he’d bothered fighting to stay alive at all.
He’d made the mistake of mentioning this moment of despair to Moira, who ever since had watched with hawklike intensity for any signs of clinical depression. Now he’d have to take the massage therapy, or else she’d summon a psychiatrist for him instead.
“I know you’re right,” he said carefully. “It’s just – one more thing, you know? Already there’s so much medicine, so much PT, at least one more surgery to get through … it never ends.”
“And it sucks. I get it. I honestly do. But the therapists who do this offer more than just back rubs, you know? You’ll get lessons in how to sit in the wheelchair better –”
“I need lessons in how to sit?”
Moira plowed on. “You’ll learn some different stretches and self-message therapies, too. So eventually you can be self-sufficient. It’s just a matter of learning.”
Learning. Self-sufficiency. Moira knew just how to push his buttons. Charles sighed and surrendered with the best grace he could manage. “All right. You win. Again.”
She grinned. “I usually do.”
Charles tried not to think about the massage therapist beyond setting up an appointment time with the agency. Still, he couldn’t help forming a few guesses about what that person would be like. A chipper young blonde girl, sturdy as a little pony, who would refuse to be downbeat about anything, whether it be paralysis, pressure sores or heavy rain – that seemed most likely. Sometimes he thought physical therapy programs had a quota to fill of them, to ensure that at least half of all therapists would fit this mold. But better another chipper blonde than one of the sages – one of the ones who felt like his job was less about providing exercise and encouragement and more about dispensing little nuggets of homespun wisdom about perseverance and optimism. In a just society, it would be legal to punch people who said such things to paraplegics. No, not just legal. Mandatory.
But when the therapist arrived, he didn’t fit into either category. Or any category Charles had ever conceptualized before.
Well, save one – the category known as “Smoking Hot.”
“I’m Erik Lehnsherr. MedMobile sent me.” His gray eyes took in the opulence of the mansion, but he didn’t remark on it the way most people did – either with fawning admiration or too-familiar humor. To him it seemed to be just another place. “We should go over a few things.”
“Oh, right. Yes. Of course.” Charles’ cheeks were warm with unexpected heat. How stupid, to be in his thirties and still get flustered at the sight of an attractive man.
But, good God, what a man.
Erik was tall and muscular, with dark hair that stood in stark contrast to his pale, searching eyes. He wore the loose workout pants and logo-embroidered polo shirt of his tribe, and yet the perfection of his frame was obvious every time he moved. Even his skin smelled good.
Yet the most compelling thing about him was the way he addressed Charles – without pity, without false cheer, without any of the different canned reactions Charles had learned to loathe during the past year and a half. Erik talked to him like a rational human being. That gift shouldn’t have been a rare one, but it was.
“We need to set up three home visits a week,” Erik said. “Monday and Friday afternoons work for your schedule?”
“Yes. Absolutely.” Please try not to stare at the nice man’s abs. He has a face, you know. A beautiful one -- “The university schedules my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to minimize the travel back and forth.”
“And Wednesday mornings, then. If that’s all right.” Erik sat at the very edge of the sofa in the study, his posture as straight and disciplined as a military officer’s. But his voice remained pleasant, his tone unhurried. “How long since your spinal cord injury?”
“Eighteen months. Car accident.”
“Was alcohol involved?”
“Not on my part. Unfortunately, the other fellow drank enough for the both of us.”
Erik’s eyes lifted from his iPad to study Charles’ face – only for a moment, but so intently that Charles feared he’d get flushed again. “The notes Dr. McTaggart sent over said you had an L2 fracture with typical response, but I’d like to hear you describe your own situation, as you live it.”
She told him that but didn’t tell him how long since the accident? Charles sensed something else might be behind that first question – what, he didn’t know, but it hardly seemed to matter. “Right. Well, as she said, my spinal cord was damaged at the second lumbar vertebra. Low enough that they hoped I might even be able to walk again someday – not well, but a little – but the injury was too severe for that.” That had come out even and steady: Good. Charles found it harder to talk about that false hope than he did about the injury itself. “I retain some sensation below the injury. Some movement. Enough to help myself in and out of bed, that kind of thing. I can even use the toilet when and how I choose, which is one of those things you don’t think to be grateful for, until something like this.”
Should he have mentioned that? Was that the kind of thing the hot massage therapist really needed to hear? But then, Charles had become used to total strangers poking, prodding and examining every square inch of his body. He suspected his idea of “appropriate boundaries” was sliding farther and farther from the norm.
Erik merely nodded, kept taking notes. “Sexual function?”
Just hearing a man this attractive say the word sexual was basically the high point of Charles’ love life since the accident – depressing but true. “Haven’t really tested it.”
That earned him another searching look. “Not even on your own?”
“Oh. Yes. Of course. It’s a bit … time-consuming, now, and not quite … but the basic, ah, concept – oh, bloody hell, it still works, all right?”
That made Erik smile, and suddenly the situation seemed less pathetic, more … well, just the way things were. Charles managed to relax, but even as he leaned back a bit in the wheelchair, one of his lower back muscles rippled into painful spasm.
Even as he winced, Erik rose. “Your back?”
“The spasms. They’ve been – I mean, they’ve always been there, since the beginning, but for some reason the past couple of months, they’ve gotten worse.”
“We’ll talk later and get started now.” Erik put his hands on the back of Charles’ wheelchair. Normally Charles insisted on pushing himself whenever possible, eschewing the use of the motorized chair for any but the worst weather or most unpredictable terrain, but with his back like this, he was willing to let someone else steer. “Where’s your bedroom?”
Charles was in too much pain to even enjoy the question. “Upstairs.”
“I put in an elevator.” He had to suck in a sharp breath then; the pain lanced through the muscles of his back, locking them together in a way that made them seem more like metal parts than like flesh. “I’m lucky. I know. Most people can’t – people this happens to – they don’t have the option – ”
“Stop apologizing for your situation,” Erik said as he started pushing. “The money or the paralysis. Any of it. This way?”
Charles just nodded.
By the time they reached his bedroom, the pain was such that the world was starting to blacken around the edges. This was a moment that made Charles want to reach for the Vicodin. He didn’t, though. Despite all Moira’s assurances that his painkiller usage was well within appropriate limits for his situation, Charles hated even the illusion of dependence.
Instead, when Erik settled the wheelchair next to the bed, Charles pulled himself onto the mattress. He started to roll onto his back – force of habit – but Erik gently guided him to lie belly-down. “Where is it worst?”
“The latissimus dorsi.” The words seemed to grind their way through his locked jaws. “The abdominal obliques.”
There was a time when he just would have gestured and said there, but by now Charles had learned the proper medical terms for almost every part of his body. A crash course, he thought to himself, the bleak joke not even close to funny.
The very idea of relaxing when he was in that much pain seemed ridiculous – until Erik’s hands slid beneath the hem of his shirt.
It was as if he already knew every single place that hurt. His palms smoothed along the curve of Charles’ back, almost startlingly warm – and then his fingertips pressed in, down, around, exactly where that touch was most needed. Charles turned his face more firmly into the coverlet to keep from moaning out loud. Although he wasn’t quite sure of the correct etiquette between masseuse and client, he was willing to bet “making porn star sounds” was definitely in the don’t column.
But oh, God, that was so good –
“Normally, of course, we’ll work on my table,” Erik murmured as his thumbs began making circles in the hard ridges of muscle on either side of Charles’ spine. “But I didn’t want to make you wait while I set it up. Not while you were in pain.”
“Thank you,” Charles said. The words were muffled by the coverlet but hopefully Erik got the gist.
And that would help keep things professional, wouldn’t it? They wouldn’t normally be in his bedroom, with Erik leaning over him – one leg on either side of his thighs – no. They’d be in the front room on a folding table. A clinical table. Totally unsexy. Yes.
Then Erik added, “And, of course, on my next visit, we’ll have time to get you undressed.”
Help me, God.
That night, as Erik logged his visits, he heard a rap on the half-open MedMobile office door. “Hey, are you headed out?” said Sean. “Some of us were going to head over to Alphabet City, grab a couple drinks.”
Sean sighed as he leaned against the doorjamb. “You know, it doesn’t have to be carrot juice and omega-3 supplements all the time.”
“How can I prescribe it if I don’t live it?”
“The same way everybody else does. Hypocrisy!”
Erik reminded himself that Sean meant well. That this was an attempt at congeniality – maybe even friendship. That most people could handle their alcohol reasonably well, and everyone would go home either on the subway or in a cab.
But that didn’t change the fact that he’d rather be strung up by his thumbs than spend the night with a bunch of rowdy guys in a bar. “I appreciate the invitation. But no thanks. It was a long day.”
“Oh, yeah, you got that call way the hell upstate, right?”
“An hour’s ride on the train.” Erik shrugged. “MedMobile’s charging him for transit time. It rests my hands.”
“Not a bad gig. How did it go?”
For a moment he thought of Charles Xavier’s soft blue eyes, the dusting of freckles across his pale skin, the bashful way he’d laughed when he talked about sex …
“Fine,” he said, aware he was smiling for no reason. “Just fine.”