My physical therapist, Jordan, always looked away while he iced down my arm. I think it was because those first few times I fought a losing battle against crying or being sick. He’s a compassionate guy. He doesn’t share much, but I get the feeling he needs to take away my pain. It’s as if he’s atoning for something, so it’s rough on both of us.
I’d spent nearly forty-five minutes working my hand that day. He warmed me with compresses and gradual movement, and we’d progressed to pronation. My range of movement—just turning my hand over at the wrist is gone for the most part. My bones had to be stabilized in such a way that the muscles don’t flex like they used to. Lifting my wrist, squeezing a soft rubber ball, picking up marbles, and using my fingers to grip a flexible web were all innocent-seeming tortures for me day in and day out.
Inevitably pale and sweating, exhausted and depressed, I left Jordan and the Day-Use Ex Machina gym where he worked. I did that twice a week still, sometimes three times, and followed up with homework. Exercises with equipment and little finger-tapping routines—thumb, forefinger, and each other finger after—counting off twenty reps, before bed.
I didn’t toss my cookies anymore after our sessions, something for which I’m sure we were both grateful.
The pain was manageable, and even though I’d told more than one person I was on pain medication to get out of awkward situations, I hadn’t taken narcotics since the very beginning. I was killing my liver with alcohol and NSAIDs, but you wouldn’t find me in line to get hooked on narcoanalgesics. I’d seen one too many colleagues—bright, clever people—go down that road, and I for damn sure wasn’t going to let that be my destination.
“I got you something.” Jordan was opening a UPS parcel. “I think you can probably start using this now. It’s one-and-a-half pounds in strength, the lowest this manufacturer makes, so the pressure shouldn’t hurt you, but as with anything, start slow.”
What he pulled from the box was a yellow plastic and spring contraption that looked like part of a trumpet, with buttons for each of my fingers. Just looking at it hurt. When I finally accepted it, I felt my eyes burn, and it was a sign of how tired I was that I didn’t hide it. He demonstrated with a red one, pushing the little spring bar with his index, then his middle finger, his ring finger, and pinkie. He casually rippled them over the buttons, back and forth like a child would wave with little wiggly fingers.
My heart sank when I realized I would never, ever have that kind of dexterity, the kind he took for granted, the kind that allowed him to move his fingers independently, that let him push buttons without the gut-clenching fear I felt just looking at my new toy.
“I don’t expect you to do this with each of your fingers just yet. It’s simply another weapon in our arsenal.”
I swallowed down the nausea that it made me feel. “Sure.”
“This…” Jordan frowned. His optimism seldom wavered, but I could see how watching me suffer was taking its toll. “This isn’t easy, I know. I think you have a realistic outlook and you’re working really hard. If I could make this better, if I had a way to make it easier—”
“It is what it is,” I said, and at the time I meant it. It’s amazing how far I’ll go out of my way to cheer someone up when they’re upset about my pain. “A couple of Advil, a blowjob. I’ll get my mind off it somehow.”
Jordan was never shocked by what I said, but sometimes it made him color a little. “Whatever it takes. It is going to get easier. You’ll see.”
“I know. Besides I have the hottest PT in town.” This is an old joke. Not only was he the only certified sports medicine PT in town, he was the son of my brother’s business partner, and she was a friend. “I’ll see you.”
He nodded, then opened the door for me. When I looked back it was to see him unguarded. He was worried about me, maybe, and a little depressed that he couldn’t make things better. I’d seen that look on his face before.
“You make it a lot easier to take, Jordan.”
He nodded again, but put his hand on my shoulder. “I wish I could make it go away.”
Would there have been any sense in my saying Me too? I didn’t think so. I just left to make my way across the gym, which as usual was chock-full of healthy athletes, first-rate bodies working like finely tuned machines, gripping, lifting, squeezing, and pumping iron with perfect hands and arms while I…
It didn’t bear thinking about, so I put my head down and started walking. I held my new yellow torture device in my good hand, manipulating it with ridiculous ease while my injured arm rested in its special sling, when someone getting up from a weight bench tripped over his towel and hurtled into me on the right side, a mass of muscle and bone that smashed and flailed against my just-iced hand and caused such pain to explode inside my skin that fireworks of color burst behind my eyelids.
“Fuck.” I doubled over to protect my hand even as my knees buckled from the pain. “Fuckity, fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Watch it!” a voice behind me barked. Warm hands drew me away from the collision and into another solid mass of muscle, this one tall, hot, and damp—I guessed from working out—but oh, so gentle and fuck, almighty, I turned into whoever’s touch that was and nearly passed out, savoring the warm embrace and the smell of a clean man’s honest sweat.
“Are you all right?”
I couldn’t open my eyes and still squeeze back tears, so I nodded.
The man who tripped into me said, “It was an accident, man. I’m so sorry.”
I nodded again. “’S’okay. Shit happens.”
Jordan had apparently seen the collision, because soon he was standing right at my elbow. I recognized his distinctive, fresh cologne, and he and whoever had caught me were leading me back to the therapy room where I could sit down. A big hand stayed where it had landed on my shoulder, soothing me while I learned to breathe again.
“I’ll get more ice.” Jordan hurried to the door. “I won’t be long.”
That left me with my Good Samaritan, so I opened my eyes, prepared to thank him and tell him I would be fine.
It was Cameron Rooney, and I had no words.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you, Daniel.”
I hadn’t recognized his voice because it was different, as unlike the voice of the firefighter who’d cut me out of my car as it was unlike the man who’d verbally sparred with me the night before at Nacho’s. Maybe that was the first time I realized that Cam Rooney had lots of different voices. That he suited what he said and did to the moment more perfectly than anyone I’d ever known. In a way, he was the ultimate chameleon. Later, when I thought about it, I realized that when we were alone, he called me Daniel.
“You’re welcome.” He got up and moved to the wall on the other side of the room and struck a cowboy pose, hunched over with arms crossed, his leg bent at the knee and his foot braced against the wall. He was so beautiful I just stared at him.
A long silence stretched out between us, and I figured that was because we usually took potshots at one another and he didn’t want to fire at me when I was already down.
He surprised me again by saying, “I don’t get you.”
I glanced up at his face. “What’s to get?”
He shook his sweaty blond head, which had for some reason at one point resembled a buffalo head to me, and I never got tired of telling him that. “I figure we can agree that sometimes I see people at the worst moments of their lives. People are hardwired for survival, and a firefighter gets a front-row seat to the best and worst, you know?”
“I never thought about it that way.”
“I’ve seen nice people run from burning buildings and leave their kids and pets behind. I’ve seen men and women die trying to save someone they don’t even know. When I pulled you and Yasha out of that wreck, he didn’t want to leave without you. I thought I’d have to knock him out. I would have too.”
I had to smile at that. I had no doubt. My hand had been crushed between the seat and the door, and Jake refused to leave me, even though it was a massive pileup in the fog, with impact after impact. The worst night of my fucking life, and there was Cam to save the day.
I’d tried to get my brother to go to safety, but he was stubborn as hell. In those awful, endless moments before rescue I thought we’d both die right there. Then Cam’s face appeared in the window on the driver’s side. His gauntleted hand shone a flashlight into the crushed passenger compartment of my once-beautiful Lexus, and he’d grinned at us like a blond angel.
Did he think I wanted Jake to stay with me?
“I tried to make him leave.”
“I know you did,” Cam said in that quiet, soothing voice I’d never heard before. “It was obvious you were hiding how badly you were injured. You weren’t about to let him see the pain, so you joked it away. Lied like a damn rug. After he left, I saw what you didn’t have to hide anymore. Excruciating pain. Terror.”
I had to clear my throat to talk above a whisper. “He’s my kid brother. I look after him. I always have.”
“Then why’d you treat him like you did last night? Can’t you be happy for him? Can’t you hide your feelings when his happiness is at stake and not just his life?”
I had no answer. I still didn’t know why I’d reacted the way I did. Part of me understood I’d become an accomplished liar. Why couldn’t I lie about that?
I nodded again to let him know I’d heard him, and we both jumped a little when Jordan came back. I felt Cam’s eyes on me while Jordan iced me down again, and then I heard him leave.
For a beat or two I was inexpressibly bereft. I wanted him to say my name again because it felt so damn good.
“You’re swelling.” Jordan sounded concerned.
“I’ll be all right. I’ll elevate it, and in the morning it will be fine.”
“Are you sure you shouldn’t see a doctor?”
“It’s okay, really.”
Jordan’s boss, Izzie, poked her head in. “You okay, Dan? I heard you got hurt.”
“It’s fine,” I told her.
She peered at me. “You don’t look so good.”
“I never look good when I leave this place. I’m going to go home and rest up. I promise if it swells up more or if there are any other problems, I’ll go see the doctor, all right?”
“What do you think?” Jordan asked Izzie. I thought that was odd at the time, because while Izzie is a lovely woman, as far as I knew she wasn’t a doctor.
“Why are you asking her?”
“Izzie’s a perceptive,” Jordan said before turning to her again. “What do you see?”
“Zip.” She shrugged. “Which is really weird. I can count on one hand the times this has happened to me.”
I looked up from where I’d been studying my hand. “I’m sorry. What are you talking about?”
“Izzie sees auras.” Jordan announced that like he was observing the weather. Like, the sun is out.
“Auras?” My face probably betrayed my disbelief.
“As it turns out, I can’t read Dan at all.”
“Really?” Jordan asked.
She shrugged. “Dan is a blank wall.”
Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing to be. I imagined if she actually could read my “aura” the news of what she saw there—my undeniable, foolhardy attraction to Cam—would circulate around the gym faster than athlete’s foot. I was only too happy to be her blank wall.
Her lips quirked up in a tight smile, and I wondered if she knew what I was thinking. A second later, she left me without a doubt.
“I wouldn’t be too happy about that, Mr. Livingston. What happens to a blank wall is anyone can write anything they want on it.”
© Z.A. Maxfield, August 2011
All Rights Reserved