Susan Robison's short fiction has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, New Letters, Confrontation, Cream City Review, Saranac Review, Night Train and many others. Her personal essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine. She studied Creative Writing in the MFA program at Emerson College and is currently completing a novel, of which After Crash is the opening chapter.

After Crash

posted Mar 17, 2015

Part 1 | Part 2

Sam hurtled across his living room in his wheelchair and smashed his left arm—nothing more than a flipper now—against the far wall to see if anything registered. It was oddly liberating, as if he had an unsuspected superpower. The ability to inflict pain on himself that he couldn't feel.

Soon his father would show up. As Sam struggled into his sweatpants, the doorbell rang.

*

His father parked his van in front of a brick building in Cambridge and set up Sam's power chair next to the passenger seat. He helped Sam turn his knees to the door and shouldered his weight as he transferred into the chair. Sam toggled his joystick, shot up the ramp and faced Capuchin Companions' logo on the glass door: a drawing of a monkey standing on the lap of a person in a wheelchair. He shuddered, but his father looked so eager, Sam let interest sift into his features.

From the lobby, they went through glass doors into a room with a large cage where they were assaulted by the sound of three monkeys shrieking and gibbering, careening on metal swings. The diapered monkeys were less than a foot tall; Sam watched them leap from swing to swing, long tails whipping. Riight. A monkey bounding through his house, needing its diaper changed. A woman rushed over and said that these monkeys were on their recess from training sessions. She suggested that his father wait in the lobby while Sam looked around.

*

Since botching a flip on his bicycle and snapping his spinal cord six months earlier, Sam found little to divert himself from the dive his life had taken. Each interminable day banged into the next. He spent too much time at his window watching summer turn to fall in his Somerville neighborhood while he couldn't force himself out of his door other than the few times his father drove him to a doctor's appointment.

One night, he and his father were surfing TV channels at Sam's house when his father paused at a local news piece. When it ended, his father jumped up from the sofa as excited as Sam had ever seen him A.C., as Sam referred to life, After Crash. "A monkey who can open a can of soup for you. We got to check this out."

After months of hospitalization and rehab, Sam had limited strength in his trunk and right arm, but his legs and left arm were still useless. His right hand was stiff, more spatula than hand. He'd pressed that hand on the large button on the remote to increase the volume, preferring to listen to the Geico lizard than this. But his father, uncharacteristically forceful, kept badgering him until Sam said fine, he'd go see the friggin' monkeys.

*

Though Sam was immediately ready to leave, he didn't want to disappoint his father by showing up in the lobby too soon, so kept rolling past small rooms with open doors. Monkeys stood on counters, flipped magazine pages or inserted straws into plastic bottles at the commands of their trainers: girls who looked to be in their mid-twenties, his age. They wore tighter jeans and nicer blouses than he expected monkey trainers to wear. It had been an eternity since he'd seen a girl who wasn't in a hospital gown, but embarrassed about his Velcro closed shirt and his sweatpants, he sped up even more.

Outside one room he surprised himself: he took his hand off the joystick and stayed. The monkey was grooming his trainer's hair from his shoulder perch. Maybe looking for a snack. This trainer had on a loose beige t-shirt, cargo pants and work boots, as if she were on a jungle expedition. Her head was thrown back, eyes closed, arms dangling. She let out a long sigh. Her thighs were heavy and she had a slight paunch; he wouldn't have given her a second look B.C. But the way she abandoned herself to this monkey pinned him there.

When he finally turned to head down the hall, his hands were shaking so that his chair lurched into the door. The trainer's eyes snapped open. "I had no idea--" She sat up. "Come in. I'm Sharon. This is Webster." Webster stopped grooming and looked at him with interest. Sharon's short hair was spiked at crazy angles; she tried, unsuccessfully, to smooth it. Her hair was cut so jaggedly he wondered if she cut it herself. Or maybe the monkey, wielding tiny scissors, did it.

She was kind of pretty, with almond-shaped brown eyes and full, sexy lips. She regarded Sam intently; a blush flamed up her neck and fanned across her cheeks. Back when he was a bi-ped, women he'd pass on the street would turn around to get a second glimpse of his curly brown hair, green eyes, and what he knew was a great profile. And since he'd often be on his bicycle, a woman would thrill to his tricks: doing a flip, or standing on his pedals jumping his bike beside her as she walked along. His roommates had called him a chick magnet, but that was inaccurate. He'd been strong on attracting, but weak on sticking. Now that he had zero muscle tone and was pale as a sea worm, he had no idea what he was, who he could attract.

Sharon picked up a laser pointer and identified a DVD on a shelf. Webster scrambled on all fours to the player, popped out a DVD, put it back in the case, then selected and positioned a new movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. "He loves the monkey. We've seen it like a hundred times." He had a vision of her long after the other trainers had left and the lights were out in the training rooms, watching movie after movie. Alone, except for Webster.

"He's really smart." Sam rolled closer. She smelled somewhat monkey. Bits of seed shells clung to her t-shirt and pants, drifted down from her hair.

"Occupational hazard, at least for me," she said, brushing herself off. She shrugged, smiling. "He is smart. He's not in diapers because he's one of very few we've been able to cage-train. He's a furry Einstein. Our own Mark Zuckerberg." She leaned forward, her face inches from Webster's. "Aren't you brilliant?" She seemed to catch herself and she straightened up. She clearly spent more time with monkeys than was healthy. But who was he—who couldn't keep himself from becoming unhinged in his house, couldn't leave it, couldn't get himself out of his own fucking way—to say what was healthy?

When his two roommates had visited him in the hospital soon after his crash, they spent much of the time staring at their sneakers. He'd told himself, Never again. Never again would he let the people who'd known him whole see him broken. But Sharon must be used to the broken. As were all the trainers here, so it wasn't just that.

Sharon turned to Webster. "Lap." He sprang onto it. "Partners—what we call people who get monkeys—become alphas and the monkeys love making them happy. Would you like him to scratch your back?"

Just thinking about his back made it itchy. There'd been scores of times when he had an itch where his damp shirt met his wheelchair, and the more he thought about it, the more it spread and intensified, reducing him to tears of frustration and rage. He must have nodded; Webster leaped onto his lap and scrambled up his arm. Sam was surprised how light he was. "Seven pounds," she said as if his thoughts were scrolling across his forehead like ticker tape.

From inches away, Webster looked like both an infant and a little old man: huge black eyes, tiny teeth, wrinkled skin, dark brown cap of fur framing his pink, human, curious face. Sharon tapped Sam's shoulder. "Up." Webster perched on Sam's shoulder, gripped him with his long toes and hung down, scratching his back wildly. "Tell him 'lower' till he hits the right place."

"Lower," he said. "Lower. Yeah, that's it." Though Webster had a funky smell Sam wasn't sure he could ever get used to, his fingers were strong and Sam could hardly bear how good it felt. It had been too long since he'd been touched in a way that didn't reek of dependency. Sharon knew what he needed before he did. He imagined her rubbing his neck, shoulders, chest: the places he still had sensation.

"Feels good, huh?" She gazed at him for a few beats too long. Like back in the day, well, except for the monkey still busy working on his back.

His heart thumped faster, the old adrenalin kicking in. Though his smile was rusty from disuse, he tried his best. "Do you do any of the home training? I think I could deal better with this"—Sam swept his good arm to indicate his legs and his left arm—"if you trained us. If I wanted a monkey, what would the next step be?"

Though the room next to them was empty, Sharon whispered. "I'm not supposed to be saying this. The placement team has to be sure you and your familyor girlfriend, whoever assists you, can handle the responsibility."

"It's just me and my dad. You knownow."

She smiled with a sheer unguarded wattage he'd only seen in little kids. His smiles had always been more calculated, as were those of the girls he'd dated. He leaned in to her. "He comes to my house—I have my own place—almost every night and weekends. My mom died when I was in high school, so he's real happy to help me and have somewhere to go."

"Oh, sorry about your mom, Sam." Webster jumped onto the counter and looked at Sharon expectantly. She pumped peanut butter from a plastic dispenser onto her finger; Webster licked it clean. "Good back scratch." Turning to Sam she said, "These guys are loves and they live into their thirties. Their partners get unbelievably attached to them. But they're like furry two-year-olds who can get everywhere. You must be firm or your monkey will turn on your stove, pound the table for snacks. This one here is capable of prying open a pill bottle. They take a lot of patience. Are you up to that?"

Sam couldn't imagine he would be. Though he used to be fluent in the bobs and feints of flirtation, saying what he really thought was a language foreign to him. "I think so. Yeah, definitely."

"The placement team is good at figuring out whether you've come to terms with the changes in your life. If you're not in a good place, not ready for a monkey, they'll know."

*

Sam only knew he'd badly bruised his arm when he rolled into the bathroom that night and struggled out of his Velcro-closed shirt so his father could help him shower. Seeing angry purple skin, he wanted to get back into his shirt, tell his father never mind, but it was too late, his father was asking in a frightened voice what happened. In middle school, Sam fractured his wrist grinding a curb; in high school both arms were in casts after he jumped his bike down concrete steps, then pitched forward when he hit a hole. Ashamed to put his father through one more in a list of blows that could have been avoided, Sam said he accidentally banged into the edge of the bookcase. He'd be more careful.

"That ol refrain," his father said, tapping Sam's skull.

*

Sam made an appointment with Sharon, then several more. Though with his power chair he could navigate the three miles through Cambridge and Somerville streets, he was certain his chair would function as a warped force field, pasting encouraging smiles on the faces of everyone he passed. His father left work early to drive him, said he was happy to.

Sharon had him practice commands with Webster, and occasionally with Cha-Cha and Fred. Sam wasn't exactly tight with Webster, but he was getting used to him. He had Webster scratch his back and neck, put a straw in a bottle and hold it at the height he could sip from. Sam would push a TV remote off his lap, and over and over Webster would scramble to pick it up and hand it to him.

One day Sam asked his father to drop him off when Sharon's shift was ending. He didn't have an appointment; he told his father he'd call when he was done unless Sharon could drive him home. Rolling to her room, he passed two trainers on their way out who waved hello. Webster was sitting in Sharon's lap, stuffing popcorn into his mouth. They were watching a movie; the cover of Curious George was by the player, a bowl of popcorn on the counter.

Webster leaped into his lap, chattering with excitement, which, surprisingly, moved him deeply. "Hey buddy." He ruffled his fur from head to tail and rubbed behind his ears.

"You shouldn't be here," Sharon said. "What are you doing?"

"I know. But I wanted to hang with both of you for a bit. I figured you wouldn't meet up with me outside of here. Right?"

"Right. If any director sees you, I could get in trouble, even lose my job. We can't show favorites. My supervisor already told me she doesn't want you making more appointments with me. If you need another, request a different trainer. Now go."

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"Don't ask me that." She picked up Webster from his lap. "No." She shooed him out.

*

During his screening interview with the placement team several weeks later, he was asked whether he could bond with a monkey. With Sharon's coaching, he was ready. He said how fond he'd become of Webster and Cha-Cha. He made up a story about a dog, Scout, his constant companion as a kid.

*

Sam sat facing his front door, his arm trembling on its rest. Any minute, Sharon would show up with Webster for the first day of a week of training. Although he was stoked that Sharon would be in his house and that Webster was the monkey he was getting, it had sunk in how little he really had of whatever it would take to bond with him. He didn't last long in college and then blew through an assortment of jobs, apartments, roommates, girlfriends. After his crash, his latest and longest-lasting girlfriend had left voice and text messages on his cell, until she finally gave up. He had to shove all thoughts of Lori into the back of his mind. The back of his mind was becoming very crowded.

When he heard Sharon walk up his ramp, he slid his arm in a sling and pulled down on a lever his father had set up in place of a doorknob. Webster clung to her, his arms around her neck. Rather than the tiny competent adult he'd seemed like at Capuchin Companions, Webster now looked like a frightened infant. Sam wondered if he looked different to Sharon, too. He wasn't a competent adult, either, though he'd used his Grip n Grab to pick up the clothes and papers strewn around his house. It was tiring; he was winded. After rehab, he was told to keep up with aerobic chair exercises, bungee cord stretches to strengthen his right arm, kneading putty to strengthen his hand and fingers. Work out at a gym. He'd done none of those things.

Sharon wore a T-shirt and pants every time he saw her at Capuchin Companions, but now she had on a blouse and skirt. He hoped she'd dressed for him. He'd made an effort also, slipping his hand into the Velcro band around his shaver and making his face smooth, more or less. She opened the three-level cage with a swing that had been set up in the corner of his living room. She cuddled with Webster, who licked her cheeks and her lips, while she beamed. Sam could do without the lip licking, but their love of each other never failed to pierce him. Mother and son, he realized with a start. He rolled over to the sink and busied himself washing an already clean cup.

After settling Webster in the cage, Sharon wiped her lips with the back of her hand. She walked around, touching the lowered counter separating the kitchen from the living room, slipping her hand into one of the rubber loops dangling off every drawer pull and knob, tugging the drawer open. "Nice house. You and your dad did a great job setting it up." Though the kitchen had ancient, nicked wood cabinets, an old-school linoleum floor, and the fluorescent tube in the kitchen sometimes flickered, he was able to be pretty much independent in it which was all that mattered.

"My father did it. Except for the determination to get out of his house. That was all me. The money was from my mom's life insurance."

She sat on the sofa and tugged her skirt over her knees. Webster stood, grasping the bars of his cage, craning his neck toward her, making shrill chattering sounds.

"Will it be hard walking away from him?"

"It's always tough, especially with a love bug like him. But I see how attached they get to their partners. It's just gonna take you two some time."

Partners. Sam shifted, shifted again. "Thanks for everything. Webster wouldn't be here if not for you."

"True." She smiled, then bent over to pull out a binder labeled Monkey College from her backpack. Her scoop-necked blouse revealed the tops of her full breasts. His penis stirred; like a lot of guys with spinal cord injuries, he could still get aroused. Sharon would probably know what a C-7 spinal-cord guy could, and couldn't, do. He'd thought about this, often. His rehab doctor had told him he might maintain an erection, possibly with Viagra. So far, masturbating with his spatula hand went nowhere.

She held her binder tight against her chest as she bent over to grab a pen, probably sensing that at home he was freer to be a guy with all his guy thoughts. "Webster would love the playground I passed. You'd need to put him on a leash of course. I could go with you a few times until he gets used to the leash and to kids coming up to him."

Having people watch that particular circus wasn't something Sam could imagine warming up to. Some of his high school friends probably played on the courts next to it. Though it would have been easy enough to lie, tell her they'd go soon, he said nothing. He used to have a luxury he didn't appreciate: it took women a long time to realize how unreliable he was. Webster might well accelerate that curve. With Sharon's ability to see through him, she might also.

"You're too cooped up, Sam. I can give you contacts, guys who've dealt with this." Before he left rehab, a shrink tried to set him up with a support group, but there was no way he would sit in a circle of skinny legs and sad stories. "You know that I went all out for you with the placement team and convinced them to take you. I never did that before. Maybe I saw more in you than is really there. Yet. You told me a bunch of times that if I was around to help, you two would be a great team." She paused. "Don't make me wrong."

She let Webster out of his cage and handed Sam a laser pointer so he could indicate a DVD from his shelf. Webster had a tough time placing it in Sam's player, a different model than he was used to, so the DVDs kept clattering to the floor. Webster's "ooh-ooh-oohs" became shrill and extremely annoying. He would have loved to slip a little muzzle over his mouth. But with Sharon's guidance -- and a couple words of encouragement from him -- Webster toughed it out, got the DVD's in, and quieted down, much to Sam's relief.

"I know this can be hard, Webster here in the flesh. Well, in the fur," Sharon smiled. "That's it for today; you both did great."

"Can you stay a little longer? I could make us coffee."

"Sorry, but I've got to get back." She opened the door. "Flowers along your ramp would be nice. I could help you plant some. No, what am I saying?"

"What about when you're done monitoring us? That'll be what, three months?" She walked down the ramp to her ancient Corolla. "I'll order bulbs. Hundreds of them," he called to her. "Thousands."

After she left, he felt lonelier than ever. Her lemony scent lingered in the room, zooming him back to the smell of Lori's hair when he buried his face in it, the softness of her skin. It wasn't so much Lori he was longing for as being able to stand up, hold a woman by the waist, enter her from behind. Minutes later, ready all over again. This is what happened when he let anything in; open the door a crack and everything he did not want to remember muscled in.

Webster stared at the front door. He, too, had spent his life in the midst of others of his kind. And was now alone. With him, poor little guy. "Lap," Sam said, patting his thigh, but Webster wouldn't budge. Sam had a certain respect for that.

He dumped on the counter a set of nesting cubes that Sharon had brought over, and slowly pushed each hollow cube of increasing size inside the other. Webster inched closer, and finally leaped onto the counter. Sam jumbled the cubes and shoved them to Webster, who nested them in a fraction of the time it had taken him. "You've been practicing. You sly devil."

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