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Pace

This afternoon, while our daughter was at school, Margot came home early. The

wheelchair elevator whined outside. Her Pace ADA bus was at the curb.

Margot became a chest-down paraplegic in a car accident a year ago. She was a language arts teacher before the accident but now she works at the children’s library and takes this Pace bus to work. They usually drop her off at 5:00, but it was only 2:30.

The woman I’d invited over was boiling water in her underwear. We met online. This was her first time over and I hadn’t explained anything about my wife’s situation. For some reason, I’d lied and told her the ramps were for my father in-law.

I go, “You gotta get out of here. Out the back door, around the house.”

“Which way?” she asks.

“It doesn’t matter, actually. Just leave. My wife’s bus is here.”

“Your wife’s bus?”

“Right now.” I throw her her shorts.

She slides them on, grabs her earrings, and leaves the back way. I at least had the sense to

make her park down the street. The gate clacks closed right after Margot opens the door.

“Pipe burst, so they sent us home,” she says as she rolls inside. “What a mess.”

“Tea?” I ask, standing by the simmering pan of water. The fact that she didn’t see the woman seems to me a small miracle.

She brings my hand to her mouth and kisses it. Then she begins to suck my finger.

“Holly gets here in a half-hour,” I say, taking my hand back.

I’m in between jobs these days, and I’m always here when our daughter gets off the bus.

Margot says, “Then when we put her to bed.”

“Sure,” I say. “You want to change?”

I take off her flats and her green, cross-hatched slacks. She lifts herself out of the chair—

she’s strong in her upper body like a gymnast—and I slide her sweat pants up her thin legs. I

hold up two pairs of wool socks.

“The red or the blue?” I ask.

She picks the red and I slide them on her feet.

Later, the three of us have dinner. I make lamb tagine with an authentic recipe I got from

a Moroccan restaurant.

“What do you think?” I ask them.

“Very good, Clay. Different,” Margot says.

“I don’t like lambs,” Holly says. She is in the second grade.

“But you haven’t touched it,” I tell her.

“You’re brave for trying it. That’s all we can ask.”

“Margot, she hasn’t touched it.”

But I can see this is not a conversation that’s going anywhere. I microwave Holly mashed

potatoes, which she will always eat, and sit back down to cold tagine.

“How was school?” she asks Holly.

“Good. We did Bible circle and made a finger painting.”

To think we packed up everything and moved out here for the schools.

“That’s fun,” I say.

Soon we’re putting Holly to bed and waiting for her to go to sleep. She has a stuffed monkey that plays a pre-recorded story she listens to every night. She is never awake by the end.

I said “sure” earlier, but I have no desire to have sex with Margot. Not just tonight either,

every night for a long time now. But I can’t tell her this. There are certain expectations. The

people in a man’s life demand things from him. It’s been too long since we’ve had sex for me to

tell her no without a good reason.

Last weekend she asked me, point blank, “Do you find me attractive anymore?”

There’s only one way for a husband to answer that question.

“I know it’s different. I just want you to be honest with me,” she said. “It scares me,

Clay.”

“No,” I said, “different can be good.”

It’s getting to the point where I’m not sure I can keep making excuses.

I make myself a martini after I load the dishwasher. Margot’s on some new medication,

opioids for her neck, and can’t drink anymore. I make a second martini. When she sees it she gives me a look.

“I forgot about your meds,” I say.

“You didn’t forget.”

“You like to watch me make drinks. You used to go, ‘Get behind that bar and let’s pretend

we’re strangers tonight.’”

We did used to do that kind of thing, roleplaying. But that was just the beginning. It was

something that really caught me off guard after we started dating. I didn’t think much of her at

first, but one night we were standing at the back of a bus on our way to a movie when she guided

my hand down the back of her skirt. “Do you feel that?” she whispered, my finger touching the

smooth glass knob of a plug. “That’s for tonight.” I didn’t eat any popcorn during the movie

because I wasn’t sure I could keep it down, but that night was the best fuck of my life. From

there I gradually got her to try ropes, wax, masks, vacuum suits and so on. That kind of thing

was how she hooked me, back then. Soon we were living together. Got married. We never tried

other people. What I loved more than anything was when I would take alligator clamps from my desk and clip them on her labia before she went to school. The thought of her at work all day, the tender skin purpling with pain until I removed them that afternoon, was, in a word, intense. There’s no stronger, more intimate feeling in the world than needing someone like that.

“I’m not going to pour Hendrick’s in the sink,” I say, holding the second martini.

“You think I like taking that bus?” she asks. “It’s depressing, Clay. But I do it.”

I’m supposed to help her get to work, but I got a DUI two months ago. I don’t remember

a thing, but I’ve been told I slammed into a light pole down the block. I was blasted. The only

reason I’m not in jail is that the cop has been over for dinner parties a few times. It would be

embarrassing for him, I think, if he arrested his neighbor for something like that.

There’s a palpable silence when we both stop to hear Holly’s monkey finish his story.

Then she says, “I’m going to bed.”

I stand over the sink, looking out our tall narrow window at the other houses. I take out the trash, heaps of tagine on the top. I never loved her, I think to myself, the liquor opening me up. It’s not that when your wife becomes paralyzed you suddenly realize that you never loved her—I always knew that in some repressed kind of way. It’s just that when she could walk it didn’t matter that I didn’t love her. That’s just how it is in a marriage. We own a home together. We want to keep having sex, even boring sex, with someone. We have a kid together, and we both want the best things for her—good schools and extracurriculars and a safe neighborhood. Because we were both handcuffed to these common desires I had a lot of momentum with her, if that makes sense. The thing is, once your wife gets her legs paralyzed it’s hard to keep that same inertia. A man is suddenly expected to pick up the slack. Your relationship changes. Some of the wool is pulled from your eyes.

After the accident, one of the things the doctor told us was how we were supposed to

have sex. She had a sort of speech for couples like us.

“Intercourse will change mechanically, for one. Vaginal lubrication is not something you

can rely on. Are you familiar with water-based lubricants—your KY Jellies and so on? Look into

that.”

She continued, “More importantly, intercourse will be more of a mental experience for

the woman from now on.” She held her hand out toward Margot, as if for clarification. “It’s not

uncommon to see the patient’s sex drive decrease significantly.” She looked at me for some reason when she said this.

“Thank you, Doctor,” Margot said.

“Beyond that, though, perspectives shift when someone has a brush with death. Values

change, even. Partners require different things of one another.”

“We’ll figure it out,” I said.

But the doctor was right. When we have sex it goes like this. She takes this pill before that is essentially a high-dose Viagra. It ramps up the blood flow. When she’s ready, I lift her out of her chair and lay her in bed. Then there’s a lot of foreplay, things we read about in pamphlets the doctor gave us. Ears are called “erogenous zones,” in these pamphlets. Necks are another area I’m supposed to focus on according to these instructions. Fingers, of course. We knew all this before, but the point is now that’s all we’ve got to work with—her plumbing, and everything around it, is frozen. It’s a tomb.

So I would kiss her neck. We would slide our fingers in each other’s mouths. That was all

fine. But the problem was I had to talk her to get her off, more than I ever had before. Not just

expletives but whole sentences, real complete thoughts. The last time we had sex I was lying on

top of her, my hand in her mouth, and I started talking about how proud it made me to watch her

lawsuit against Sander’s Grocery gain traction. They’re not in compliance with some ADA article involving ramps, and apparently Sander’s has been brushing off complaints for years so Margot really took it upon herself to get justice for people like her. Anyway, I go on talking between heavy grunts about the happiness it brings me as a husband to watch her organize this locally notable movement from the ground up. And not for her own selfish reasons either (though we do stand to make a lot of money), but to really make a difference for the disabled and their families in this town. Starting a group at the library and in no time getting this lawyer, who has a quadriplegic daughter himself and is sympathetic, from a big firm in the city (and entirely pro bono) is no small thing. To be by her side while this beautiful woman just takes the reins and reverses the momentum of our family’s tragedy and turns it into something meaningful.

And I could have kept going, completely lost in this story I was whispering in her ear, but

she started biting my neck and moaning and I came out of it, realizing my job was finished. In that moment, with this paralyzed woman quivering beneath me, macrodosing Viagra, coming at my retelling of her corporate litigation, I knew I couldn’t keep this up. Saying these things ought to make me love her, ought to make me realize the ways in which I always have, no? A beautiful woman fighting for good, the mother of my daughter—this is what it’s all about. But after spending forty-five minutes telling this woman stories about her own life while I rub my thumb over her erogenous zones, I realized that it verifiably is not. At least, for me it isn’t. I thought to myself, what the fuck am I doing? And in any other situation you divorce her. It happens. But what am I going to be, the guy who leaves his wife after she gets paralyzed in a car he was driving? Will I get any sympathy when I bring up the alligator clips that no longer do anything to her labia? So that’s when I started meeting people online.

On my third drink now, I enter the bedroom where Margot is asleep. Her body is soundlessly rising and falling, the light from the window highlighting her sharp cheeks, the architecture of her delicate face. In this dim light, with her glasses off, she could be someone else. Something stirs in me that hasn’t in a long time. She’s not sexless, not by any stretch of the imagination. If I could only disassociate her from the person of my wife, or from her condition, maybe we wouldn’t have these problems. And it’s not like she isn’t an agreeable, interesting, and good person. She’s all those things, the Sander’s Grocery story proves that. So what’s in the way, here? Which gear doesn’t fit right?

I return to the website where I met the woman who was over earlier today. I have one message: you didn’t tell me your wife was in a fucking wheelchair, fucker. Her name is grayed out, meaning I’ve been blocked by her and can’t respond. What a trip. I could laugh at everyone who thinks like she does, the self-righteous posturing. Listen, if you had my life.

On the bedside table is Margot’s bottle of Percocet. I count out four 5mg pills and swallow them. I need to take more than I used to because if I’m not knocked out I might try and do something. My computer is in my lap, but its light seems far away, as if it’s the mouth of a cave. The blue light turns to red and I think I’m finally starting to fade, but something like adrenaline shoots through my legs. It makes me run outside, out the back door to not wake Holly, and force my fingers down my throat. I vomit up the pills in the bushes by the garbage bins. One of their lids slams as a startled homeless man jumps away from it.

He goes, “What the hell? Watch out, man.”

He’s wearing a Starter jacket covered in faint stains. He opens the lid again and takes

another handful of tagine.

“You can’t be back here,” I say. “That’s mine.”

“You threw it away.”

“We have a gate.”

I wipe my mouth, watching him eat for a moment in a kind of hazy way. I didn’t even

know we had bums.

“What do you think?” I ask.

He shrugs, his mouth working through the tough lamb. “It’s all right.”

“Do you want money?”

He nods. “Thanks.”

I say, “My name is Clayton.” But doesn’t say anything about that.

I go back inside to get my wallet. Closing the door, I have a foggy memory of hearing that you’re not supposed to give them money directly. Homeless people. It’s dangerous, for one, and somehow bad for them. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s not like he can hold it against me if I decide to go to bed in my own house, can he? But anyway, when I walk in the bedroom Margot is sitting up, crying, with the lamp on.

“How could you?” she asks.

So she did see that other woman, I think. And she was waiting to confront me. I don’t

have anything to say. I suppose I should think of an apology.

“What if Holly found you like that in the morning? They could take her away because I’m not fit to. . .” She swipes the Percocet off the nightstand. “That’s the most selfish thing you could do.”

I feel something when she says that. With the drugs and the alcohol I can’t really say

what it is, but it’s like the calm that sets in after a bad trip. It’s difficult. I sit beside her and put

my arm over her shoulders, but I’m not really consoling her at all. By the way she leans into me

anyway, she feels it too.

John Larson Author

John Larson, 23, lives in Lexington, Kentucky. He daylights as a graduate student and teacher. Follow John on Twitter @John_Larson16

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