Connections in the midst of great physical pain
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Connections in the midst of great physical pain
Man screaming from the bottom of a pool
Connections in the midst of great physical pain (aka “Man screaming from the bottom of a pool”) is a fictional story inspired by the author’s experience with chronic back pain. The author explores what it’s like to seek authentic connections in the midst of great physical pain and emotional anguish.
Benjamin’s date didn’t look much like a firefighter in person. He only knew she was the right woman because her hair was the same copper hue here under the bar lights as it had been in the profile pictures, where she had most of it pinned back to fit beneath her helmet. He’d found something enticing about that hair when he’d first seen it—it was the only feminine thing about her, and because of that, it had an indescribably erotic charge. Now, it was down and fanned out across her back, and did nothing for him at all.
Gazing down, she folded and re-folded a paper napkin until it accordioned around her deft fingers as he approached the table. That offered him some relief. The pain hit him in sharp, violent waves, and he didn’t want her eyes on him as he limped over to the table. It was in his nature to be more upset by the visibility of his pain than the physical reality of it. That’s why he’d arrived fifteen minutes early, hoping to beat her to the table.
Lowering himself into the cracked pleather booth with rationed breaths, he waited for her acknowledgment. She didn’t speak. He thought, well, this was a mistake.
“Madeline,” he said. It was a question masquerading as a statement.
He thought of snotty children testing boundaries. “Not even my mother calls me that anymore,” he said.
Her head rose. “She still thinks it, though.” A corner of her mouth lifted to reveal a very pointed canine. “How old are you anyway?”
She said this as if it weren’t the first bit of information on his profile.
“You look even younger in person.”
She raised a finger and a blonde waitress came over. “Whiskey sour,” she ordered.
“I’ll have mine neat, thanks.”
Madeline regarded him as the waitress disappeared.
“What about me?” she asked. “Do I look older in person?”
“Yes,” he said, not because it was true but because he was still smarting from the fact that she’d said he looked young. She already had fine lines, maybe smoker lines, starting around her mouth and there was a hardness to her manner that would’ve told him she was pushing thirty even if the app hadn’t. Still, she didn’t look older than that. Not that he would’ve minded if she had. He’d never before sat across from an older woman, knowing she considered him attractive. It was a strange thing to think about; it made him feel powerful. Before his injury, he could’ve seen himself rushing through drinks, nothing more on his mind than fucking her afterwards. But before his injury, he wouldn’t even have been here, because he’d had an easy time picking up girls in-person.
“You’re quite tall,” she said. “It becomes a sort of detriment, after a certain point, doesn’t it?”
Fuck you, he thought.
“You’re quite petite,” he replied. “Like a kitten.”
She crushed the paper napkin in her hand and then abandoned it to the table. “How long has your back been fucked up?”
“Kind of a rude way to phrase that,” he said, though a part of him was relieved, given how most people danced around it, pretending his body hadn’t morphed into some grotesque elephant hobbling around the room.
“I get a lot ruder so you can leave now if you want,” she said.
He hesitated, hoping to make her sweat a little, thinking he really would leave, though he was just starting to find her interesting. “About seven months. There was no car accident or bungee jumping incident or anything. One day it was just a bit fucked up. And then it just got worse.”
She nodded. He liked that she didn’t ask about what he’d done to try to treat it. Whenever people did that, he always felt like he was being called to the witness stand to testify to his innocence. As if people could be deserving of pain like his.
“Something like that happened to an uncle of mine,” she said. “He tried to make the best of it. When he babysat me as a kid, we’d always play these games where he was the hunchback of Notre Dame while I played Esmerelda.”
“Wasn’t the hunchback in love with Esmerelda?” Benjamin asked.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” she said. “I guess it’s kind of fucked up, huh?”
“Did he ever get better?”
Frown lines creased her forehead. “He drowned after driving his car off a bridge. Couldn’t get his seatbelt off. He’d been drinking.”
“I’m sorry.” He sensed that she wasn’t the kind of person who went in for polite sympathy. On impulse, he added, “I’ve never known anybody who died. Anybody young, at least.”
The waitress brought their whiskey. “You guys want any bar snacks to go with those drinks?” she asked. “We have a buffalo wing special.”
Madeline’s gaze stayed fixed on Benjamin. “No.” Her voice was soft but definitive. “Thank you.”
A strange heat settled at the back of Benjamin’s neck. It was something about Madeline’s casual way of speaking for him—or, rather, what it implied: that she knew what he wanted better than he did. Perhaps this should’ve upset him, but it didn’t. He often found himself irritated by people who asked him what he wanted. Their efforts made it painfully clear that he himself did not know what would make him happy.
“What I like most about whiskey is the way it burns,” Madeline said, drawing him back as she moved her tumbler in slow circles, studying the way the whiskey left a thin glaze on the glass. “It feels like a campfire in your throat.”
“Doesn’t all liquor?”
“No,” she said. “Vodka is like a chemical blast. And gin always seems like trying to kindle a spark from wood that’s just been rained on.”
“You’ve thought a lot about this,” he said.
“I’m pulling it out of my ass,” she replied. “You don’t drink much, do you?”
“Not much,” he replied, though he had before he’d discovered the nasty way most pain medications mixed with alcohol. Now, his doctor had him on another round of steroids, which made him irritable and weakened his immune system but didn’t cause a violent physical reaction.
“Cheers,” he said.
They clinked glasses and drank. He tried to think of the liquor as a campfire in his throat, but the idea seemed nonsensical. It just burned.
She closed her eyes and sipped slowly, as if she were drinking nectar of the gods, and not the backwash of a dusty bottle of Canadian Club. Once satisfied, she put the tumbler down and looked at him. “Tastes like shit,” she said.
“You were the one who recommended this place.”
“I’d do it again,” she replied, with a laugh.
Three more drinks. The conversation became increasingly convoluted with each one like they were driving down a road that kept splitting off further and further from any discernible destination. They kept pivoting or reversing out of dead ends—he didn’t like to talk about his work, she closed up at the mention of her family—all while the car, miraculously, seemed to be picking up speed, her slipping out of her flannel to reveal a skin-tight black tank top, him leaning forward to wipe an eyelash from her cheek, (God, Benny, are your fingers always that warm?), holding it out and asking her to make a wish and blow (you sure you don’t want to go somewhere more private before asking a girl a thing like that?).
At the bottom of the third empty glass, realization waited for him: he wanted her. And it wasn’t exactly that he wanted to make love to her. He wanted to possess her, to know what she thought and how she lived when others weren’t watching. Illness did strange things to a person, he realized. Before he’d gotten sick he just would’ve wanted to cum.
The last call came and they agreed to get one more for the road. He didn’t want the momentum of the evening to be slowed by thoughts about the bill, about how tight his finances were, since his injury had put him out of work. He just wanted to stay here drinking with her until the sun split the morning sky wide apart and ushered them into some new reality, where maybe his back wasn’t fucked up and she didn’t work with a bunch of able-bodied men who probably posed for community calendars to raise funds. He hadn’t even thought of that before. It struck him as a sign, this spark of jealousy. A sign that he needed to slow the fuck down.
The waitress arrived with the bill. Before he could even reach for his wallet, Madeline was offering her credit card. “I live two streets over,” she said. “It’s about a five-minute walk. If you feel like it.”
“I was planning to pay for these,” he said, reaching for his wallet.
When the waitress paused, Madeline waved her off. “I was broke as shit when I was 23. It wouldn’t feel right. Now are you going to accept my invitation or not?”
The whiskey helped with the pain of moving again, initially. It didn’t make it disappear, but it made it feel irrelevant, like a man screaming from the bottom of a pool. Still, after only about a block, the screaming seemed to be getting louder, until every movement of his hips sent white-hot pain radiating down his leg. It struck him now that this entire date had been a massive feat of denial. He barely even jerked off anymore, between the pain and the side effects of all his medications, and when he did it took him ages to get off. How was he supposed to fuck her, fuck anyone?
After the first block, she asked, “What are you thinking about?” She had a careening drunken walk, which made him feel less pressure to hide his limp.
He hesitated a moment. “Just that it’s late.”
“Late,” she repeated.
“It’s just the pain. Now that I’m moving it’s hard to ignore.”
“Well.” She gestured to a townhouse in front of them. “This is me. I’m on the first floor. No stairs. If you want to rest for a minute before making the trek back to your car, you’re welcome to.”
He hesitated, but she was already unlocking the door, and everything was unfolding, and he didn’t have to do anything at all.
The man in the pool kept screaming as Benjamin took his first step up to her door.
Her apartment was nicer than he’d expected it to be. The walls were covered in intricate paper and framed with crown molding, and the floors were all hardwood. The simplicity of her things offset the grandness of the space: hand-me-down wooden furniture, a sunken red couch with a white throw blanket, a bowl full of tangerines. The air smelled of 409 and furniture polish.
“You smoke weed?” she asked after putting her keys on a gleaming mail desk by the coat rack. “My uncle used to, for his back.” She pulled a little zip lock out of her pocket with a joint and lighter inside.
“Four stiff drinks isn’t enough?” he teased.
“Up to you,” she said, as she walked over and took a seat on the edge of the coffee table, got out the joint, and lit it.
He took a seat across from her on the couch, and when she held out the joint, he took it between his lips and pulled the smoke in deep.
“Can I show you something?” she asked.
“You can show me anything you want,” he told her.
She lifted her leg onto his lap. “Feel my calf,” she said.
He moved his fingers up beneath the hem of her baggy jeans, craving the feeling of her taut flesh, the warm soft skin of her ankle. Immediately, the universe rebuffed this fantasy. His fingers hit hard plastic.
“You should see your face,” she said.
Brow furrowed as he looked at her, his hand returned to the hem of her jeans, questioning if it was alright to raise it.
He peeled the fabric up to see a prosthetic calf, securely fitted just beneath her knee.
“It was on the job,” she said. “All for a cat who’d already jumped out a window. Family was already out safe.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Not as bad as it used to,” she said. “The hardest part is when people find out. That’s why I arrived so early. I wanted to be seated before you came in.”
“I knew it when I saw you,” she said. “In the parking lot. Your limp. I thought, God, is that what it’s like, watching me arrive on a first date?”
“And what was it like?”
She lowered her calf and stole the joint to take another drag. “Sad,” she said.
He took another puff and began to notice all the noises around him with heightened acuity: the hum of the building, the murmurs of conversation from the apartment below, the soft sound of her breathing.
“So you’re not a firefighter anymore,” he said.
“I’m not anything anymore.”
“Do you miss it?”
After a moment’s hesitation, she said, “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
She raised her other calf to rest it on the sofa beside him. He put a hesitant hand on it, feeling relief at the warm flesh beneath the denim. He moved his hand under the fabric to rub small circles with his thumb. Her skin was smooth, the hair fine and soft. He wondered if her disability made it difficult to shave. For months after he’d first been injured, he’d worn a beard because of how painful it had been just to try to stand still in front of the bathroom mirror. Finally, his mother had gifted him an electric razor, and he’d started shaving seated in bed, with a small mirror propped on his nightstand beside him. He’d cried after the first time he’d shaved that way, cried for the first time he could remember in his adult life because the electric razor made his illness seem irrevocably real.
“That feels nice,” she said, drawing him back. As she spoke, smoke eddied from her lips. The sclera of her eyes was tinged pink.
Maybe it was the lighting, or the weed, or the liquor, but she looked entirely different than she had at the beginning of the evening. Open. Like an invitation written on a body.
He began to caress the back of her knee, the tender dimple there. Her back arched. God, how he loved that. He wanted to press his hand into her spine, feel it flex and move beneath his touch in a way his couldn’t anymore.
After a moment, she got up to sit beside him, putting a tender hand on his jaw.
Then she was kissing him. Her tongue tasted like tangerines. It seemed impossible, after all that whiskey and weed. She shifted forward, just slightly, and as he moved to accommodate the pressure of her touch a fishhook of pain snagged in his back and he jolted forward.
She pulled back, wearing a stoner’s grin. He knew he did, as well; he could feel it pulled tight across his face, tight enough to break.
“This would have been nice,” she said, and it did not feel like rejection. It did not feel like anything at all.
When he woke up the next day, he was alone in his own bed. A shrill, insistent alarm was coming from the bedside table because he’d forgotten to turn it off the night before. It was Saturday morning, and the mere movement it took to reach over and press the button sent shooting pains out through his leg and back. He grunted as he got out of bed.
His memories of the night before had a dreamlike, non-linear quality. He remembered Madeline’s laugh, like a layer of velvet over the blade of a knife. He remembered the moment he had felt the plastic of her prosthetic leg, how it had seemed like a bit from an absurdist comedy. Like a gift from a sadistic god.
The sunshine felt harsh, even violent, as he entered the kitchen and began making his coffee. While waiting for it to percolate, he opened the dating app and tried to find his conversation with Madeline. He wanted to ask if this all got better than this with time, to tell her he’d enjoyed meeting her, and he’d like to see her again, even if it was just to smoke, to shoot the shit, to do nothing.
When he clicked the little gray circle where her picture had been the day before, though, he was alerted that the user had deactivated her profile.
Hudson Wilding hails from Upstate New York, where she spends most of the year waiting for October. Her work has previously been published in Menacing Hedge, Not One of Us, and Wells Street Journal, among other literary magazines.