When Bobby got hurt I decided to take him home with me. The shooting happened only a week after the fifth anniversary of Brent’s death, when I received the second half of my inheritance from him. With a quarter of a million dollars at my disposal, it was easy to pay Bobby’s rent and power bills for the next two months—and the fifty thousand dollar hospital bill that was left after his insurance and the state did their parts.
He was lucky, they all said. One bullet tore through a kidney, but the other was left untouched and he would recover, he would be fine with one functioning kidney. The other bullet grazed his fourth sacral vertebra. The spinal cord was un-severed, but there was a great deal of swelling. The specialists all agreed that he would walk again, without help; they just weren’t sure when. They kept him in the hospital for eighteen days; at first, when he was in intensive care, I slept on the waiting room floor at night—I wanted to be there for the brief visitations every three hours. When they called my patient’s name I went to the elevator, then through the doors into the trauma ward. I’d stand beside his bed as long as they let me, holding his hand. His eyes were taped shut, there was a tube down his throat and one in his nose; they’d had to tie his hands down at some point, when he started to wake up and pulled at the respirator tube. They said he could hear me, but he never gave me any sign. Later, when he had a private room, I slept on the fold-out chair in the corner. He never questioned my presence, and I offered no explanation. Over the relatively short time of our bizarre courtship, I’d been seen with him at the station enough not to provoke queries from the stream of cops that came and went; they’d nod or tip their hats and speak to Bobby while I watched, waiting for him to need something.
When the nephrologists were satisfied the removal of the damaged kidney had gone well enough and the need for dialysis had passed, he was released to a rehab center. He spent two weeks there learning to live with the catheter he needed to remove urine from his body and the new process of evacuating his bowels; and the wheelchair—which he hated, wouldn’t look at if he could avoid it. They taught him to transfer from the chair to the bed and back, all the while assuring him it wasn’t a permanent need. It was strange to see him in the wheelchair—my six foot one, two hundred pound, big, strong cop, with his legs so still and the cocky self-confidence I loved drained from his face.
The house in the country had belonged to my great uncle who’d died a year earlier and left it to me, though as far as I knew he never really cared for me, and had a daughter of his own. I sent my brother down to prepare things—take care of utilities and installing metal rails in the bathroom, a ramp over the front steps. It was in the middle of nowhere—I worried about making deadlines if I couldn’t get a DSL line, but in the end decided to hand over all my upcoming projects to another writer and resigned my position. I could freelance from anywhere I chose, and could focus all my attention on Bobby if I didn’t have to think about writing.
He argued with me initially, as I’d expected he would. He was independent, had been all of his life and especially in the past few years. But reason persuaded him in the end—his fourth-floor walk up was no place for him to convalesce, and if he couldn’t work there was really nothing to keep him in the city. His partner would check his mail twice a week and forward anything important. I lined up a physical therapist and orthopedist in the nearest town to my uncle’s house. Everything was taken care of.
I picked him up the day he was discharged. He was sitting in the wheelchair beside his suitcase when I walked up. Instead of the tailored suits or designer jeans I was used to, he was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of baggy grey pajama pants. There was a growth of about three days’ beard on his face. I carried the bag to the car and he wheeled himself behind me. I opened the car door for him and then he waved me away. He grabbed the headrest of the passenger seat and pulled himself into the car; then he slipped a hand under his left knee and pulled that leg into the car, and then the right. I folded the wheelchair, the way I learned while I was studiously observing the PT center in the hospital, and put it in the back seat. As I walked around the car I saw him carefully positioning his legs in the car, using his hands and wearing a blank expression.
I got in, shut my door and looked over at him. “Are we ready?”
He nodded, turned away from me and looked out the window. It was not a promising start to the six hour trip ahead, but I hadn’t really expected anything more. He didn’t know it, but I had two month’s worth of Zoloft in my bag that I’d gotten on his behalf from his doctor. I was worried about him to the point of having lost ten pounds since he got hurt. As I pulled away from the rehab center, waving at one of the nurses, he leaned his seat back and closed his eyes.
“I need to check this bag in an hour or so,” he said quietly.
“I know. I’ll stop outside Columbus—just go to sleep, Bobby.” I reached over and back so I could touch his soft, dark curls. He turned toward me slightly when I touched him, and sighed. He wasn’t talking, but he hadn’t pushed me away like I was scared he would. I couldn’t ask for anything else.
We stopped at a BP an hour later. He pulled up his pant leg to expose the bag strapped to his calf—it was full. I got the chair out for him and waited as he pulled himself out of the car and into it. I followed him up to the gas station, then stepped in front of him to open the door. I knew better than to ask if he was okay when we reached the doors of the rest rooms, so I just touched his hair again and pushed open the door to the ladies’ room. When I finished I bought a pack of cigarettes and waited at the door for Bobby.
Back in the car, as he made himself comfortable and I started the engine, he asked me the question I’d been waiting for.
“Alice,” he said my name but looked down at his legs instead of at me. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because, I want to.” He wasn’t looking for me to express my love, not yet, and I wasn’t going to burden him with it as long as I didn’t have to.
He shook his head. “You know what I mean.”
Bobby was forty-five. I’d just turned thirty one. Once I’d finally succeeded in convincing him my interest in him was genuine, he’d commenced with the questioning. He wondered at my attraction to him, my desire to be with someone so much older than myself, the sincerity of my desire to make ours a lasting relationship.
“I thought we were over this, Bobby,” I said.
“Oh, I think there have been some changes. They warrant further discussion.”
“So what do you want, then? Another listing of the reasons I want to be with you? Do you want me to tell you again that you’re the most brilliant, beautiful human being I’ve ever known? Do you need your ego massaged? Tell me what you need to hear, Bobby, I’ll say it.” I heard the pleading in my voice and resolved to quiet it down. “Or you can just accept it. For once in your life you could not analyze something into non-existence. Just let me be here with you, just for now; and don’t question it.”
He looked at me. I put a hand on his stubbly cheek and smiled at him. He took my other hand in his and raised it to his lips.
“Ok,” he said, nodded slightly.
“Ok.” I leaned over to kiss him; then we sat for awhile with our arms around each other, silent.
My uncle’s house was a one-story cottage left over from a plantation that had been razed during the Civil War. The house was spacious and airy. The doorways were wide and the whole place was uncarpeted so it was perfect for Bobby as long as he was recovering. He wheeled himself up the ramp to the front door, the muscles in his shoulders and upper back straining under the t-shirt in a way that drew my attention. In the front foyer he stopped and looked up at me. I was never going to get used to his having to look up at me, but at that moment the heat on my face from the display of power in his arms outweighed any sadness I would otherwise have felt.
“What?” He cocked his head.
I let go of the bag I’d been holding and walked over to him, dropped down onto my knees beside him and held either side of his head, pressing our faces together and my lips onto his. He hesitated, but then put his hands on the back of my head and snaked his tongue into my mouth. After just a few seconds I was trembling with desire; I pulled back, breathless, and looked up at him. He looked down into his lap and laughed.
“Sorry, baby,” he said bitterly, putting his hands on the wheels to back away from me. “I don’t think I can help you.” He wheeled himself into the bathroom and I went back to unloading the car.
Late that night, hours after dinner, Bobby and I were sitting on the couch watching the local news. Being in the middle of nowhere as we were, almost an hour from Jackson, the reporters were largely concerned with interviewing hillbillies in front of trailers and counting DUI arrests in various parts of the county; also, there was apparently a problem lately with pig thieves. He actually laughed a few times—as far as I knew it was the first time since the shooting that he had so much as smiled.
I watched him in the flickering light cast by the television. The gray hairs at his temples seemed to have multiplied in the past few weeks; there were dark purple half-moons under his brown eyes. I traced the lines at the corner of his eye with my little finger.
He looked at me from the corner of his eye. “Am I starting to show my age?”
I nodded. “In your attitude, my grumpy old man.” I leaned forward to kiss his cheek and he put an arm around my waist quickly, holding me to him. My face was pressed against his so that his smell filled my nostrils, the warmth of his body soaked into my skin. I didn’t care if I ever moved from that place again.
“Thank you, Alice,” he whispered.
I nuzzled into him, murmuring that he didn’t have to thank me for anything. He kissed the top of my head, then said more words to me than he had in weeks.
“I know you were there, that whole time. When they brought me in, when they did the operations, when I was in ICU, every second that you were allowed in there. One of the nurses, she said you never left—that you were sleeping at the hospital, even.” He paused, took a deep, shuddering breath. “When I woke up, the doctor that was there told me that I had lousy timing and that this beautiful young woman had just left. He told me that you’d just been waiting, for days. I was out of it, when they moved me out of there, into the private room. I was scared, Alice; I was in pain and I couldn’t feel my legs… I was too doped up to really process what they were telling me, about the injuries. And you were there. Every time I opened my eyes, you were there. I didn’t know why, or how; but you never left me. I wish you knew—I wish I could tell you how grateful I am.”
I had no control over the tears that started to pour down my cheeks. I didn’t trust myself to speak and had no idea what I’d say even if I could. He held me tighter, kissed my head again.
“I don’t know what I would have done without you,” he whispered.
I sat there in his arms, as warm and as safe as I’d been in my life and I cried. Not the stressed, half hidden tears of the past few weeks, when I was so concerned with being brave and being strong for him and the many spectators. These were tears of repressed fear, and of relief; and of love so strong that it threatened to choke me every time I heard his voice. He held me that way for a long time. Then he said it was bedtime. I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth as he transferred back into his wheelchair and followed me. I hadn’t had time to have the sink lowered or another installed, so I handed him a glass of water—he brushed his teeth, spit into the claw-footed tub and then followed me into the bedroom.
The bed, thanks to my somewhat anal-retentive perfectionist brother, was level with the seat of Bobby’s wheelchair. I lingered in the doorway, finger on the light switch, and watched him get into bed; I’d never seen him do it before. He parked the chair beside the bed and locked the brake, pulled the top part of his body onto the bed and then used his hands to lift his paralyzed legs out of the footrests and into the bed. He pulled his t-shirt off and tossed it onto the floor. I turned off the light and got into bed beside him. Outside the moon was full and light filtered in through the half-open curtains so that I could make out his profile.
“Are you comfortable?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yes. Come here.”
As aloof as he tended to be during the day, at bedtime Bobby always made me stay as close to him as I could get. Even in the hospital, a few times, we’d slept tangled together in the tiny bed, much to the amusement of the staff. The first time we’d slept together he’d surprised me by insisting I stay, wrapping his big arms around me and holding me until morning. Having made the egregious mistake of being married to a man I didn’t love for nearly seven years, I wasn’t accustomed to tenderness. It was all I could do, the first weeks of being with Bobby, to stay still in the night with him pressed against me. Sometimes, I couldn’t—I’d sneak out of bed before sunrise and let myself out in the darkness.
That night, in my uncle’s house listening to the crickets that had replaced sirens and car alarms, I was content, and not afraid; we lay together until early afternoon the next day.