Convalescence

Copyright 2006 by Bill Branley

(Note from the author: This story earned an Honorable Mention (second place) in the Richard Hugo House quarterly genre competition. Hugo House is a Seattle literary center that serves writers with classes, workshops and networking opportunities. The theme of the contest was “one foot on the floor.”)

I met Juanita in the day room. That was where the nurses took me to watch television and play games. It was kind of bland, with bad art on the walls, but it had good light. There was a ping pong table, which I thought was a cruel joke: I figured it would be a long time before I played ping pong.

At first the nurses would wheel me down there and prop me in front of the television and hand me a remote control. Then they let me go on my own once I learned the way. One day a nurse wheeled in a woman with dark hair and a scowl on her face and left her parked next to me. After the nurse left I offered my new companion the remote control and she used it to turn off the television. 

“My father called it the idiot box,” she said.

“My name is Louis,” I said, opting not to challenge her on the issue of the television, guessing I would probably lose anyway.

“I am Juanita. How do you do?” she said, with tired politeness.

I shrugged. “I lost my left leg and I feel like shit. How about you?”

She shrugged back. “I lost my left arm and I hate myself.”

“Do you want to play ping pong?” I asked.

She looked at me like I had just asked her to have sex on the floor. Then she laughed. I realized she was pretty. “You will have the advantage, since you have two arms.”

“But you have two legs. You can maneuver,” I said.

“You’re serious?”

“C’mon. Just try it.”

A moment earlier I hadn’t thought I would ever play ping pong again, and now I was about to face a one-armed contestant. It fit my mood: angry, mean. I had a need to beat somebody at something. I wheeled over to the table. Because she was an arm amputee she had a powered wheel chair. I heard the whir of a motor as she buzzed over. The two paddles and the ball were lying on a side table. I handed a blue paddle to her.

“I want the red one,” she said.

I gave her the red one. I don’t think she really cared; she just wanted to make a demand. I understood perfectly. That’s what happens when you become an amputee.

I went to the far end. “Ready?” I asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She was prettier when she smiled.

Thinking I should start easy with her, I bounced the ball and tapped it gently to the other side. She slammed it back at an angle that sent it whizzing by my outstretched arm.

“You’ve, um, played before,” I observed.

“I played a lot of ping pong with my brothers in Puerto Rico when they were out of work, which was most of the time.”

“I see.”

I retrieved the ball and served it to her again, this time determined to show her that a two-armed person can beat a one-armed person at anything. But it was hopeless. Juanita was so good that I could not have beat her with three arms against her one.

“More?” she asked.

“No thanks. I’m humiliated enough.” Fortunately the nurse returned and ordered us back upstairs for dinner.

Juanita waved and smiled as she was escorted away. Damn she was pretty.

The next day I asked her when she got her injury.

“September 24th,” she said.

“Wow. That’s the same day I got hit. Roadside bomb?”

She nodded. “Anbar Province.”

“My bomb was in Baghdad.” I didn’t have to ask for more details. I could guess what she went through. When we hit our bomb my ears felt crushed by the loudest noise I have ever heard, even on the artillery range. Then there was the sound of stuff ripping and something crawling up my leg, like bugs. People screamed and I heard voices shouting from the radio. My memory is hazy after that. I was transported somewhere.Later I woke up in a surgical unit. There was a stump where my left leg had been. The very first image to enter my mind was that of my wife and two sons back at Fort Benning, Georgia. Dad now has one leg. Dad the baseball coach and marathon runner. That Dad. Strong, healthy. It was the last thing I expected to happen in Iraq. I figured I would come back alive or dead. Not crippled. After the surgical unit I was flown here, a military hospital in Germany, for a period of convalescence. This was meant to prepare me for my return to the States and my family. I received physical therapy and counseling and learned about my options for artificial limbs. Turns out there’s quite a lot you can do with an artificial leg. I talked to my wife and sons by video hookup, but they only saw my upper body. They knew what happened because I told them, but the reality would not sink in until they saw me in person. I dreaded that moment more than anything in the world. I imagined the looks on their faces and it drove me crazy.

I realized Juanita was looking at me silently, waiting for my thoughts to return to the present moment. I figured she knew my thoughts without having to ask. “Are you married?” I asked her.

“Husband and two kids in Virginia,” she said. “You see, I am a Reservist. Now I get to go home and be a one-arm soccer Mom in the suburbs, and join the other Moms in their Volvos and SUVs, holding their babies in one arm and their lattes in the other.”

The scowl had returned to her face, the one I saw the first time we met. She was close to tears. When you become an amputee there’s a fear that your loved ones will never really feel the same way about you.Regardless of how kind they are and how patient and loving they are. You are not a whole person anymore, and you are certain they love you just a little bit less.

“Would you like to play cards?” I asked.

She looked at me through her scowl and smiled just a tiny bit. “I want to beat you in ping pong again.”

“Figures,” I said. But I liked her attitude.

We started to volley and I saw an opening that would allow me to slam a shot toward the corner of the table. The ball careened off the walls and bounced on the floor. It made her angry.

“I’ll get it,” I said.

“No, I can get it,” she said.

We both headed for the ball. The wheel of her chair caught it and sent it spinning away. I steered to catch it. She cut me off and tried to step on the ball with her foot, but managed to knock it against the wall.She laughed brightly. It had turned into a game. The ball ricocheted in my direction. I was determined to steer my chair with my arms and use my good leg to catch the ball. I stomped at it wildly. She laughed at my efforts. The prettiness returned to her face. Finally I trapped it and leaned over to retrieve the elusive ping pong ball. She could not stop laughing.

I presented it to her gallantly. “The ball, your ladyship,” I said.

She took the ball, and my hand, in her right hand. Her touch was electrifying. Without thinking, I brought my other hand to hers and held it. Her eyes were all warmth and affection now. And then the miracle occurred: I became aware of a sensation that I thought had disappeared from my life forever. I was so surprised I had to look down at myself. And there it was: a state of arousal that threatened to break the seams of my pajamas.

Suddenly, with embarrassment, I realized I was staring at my own erection and Juanita was staring at it with me. “I’m sorry, I, uh…, you see it’s been such a long time…I haven’t, uh…” I quickly pulled my robe over the pup tent that had formed in my lap.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. Now the softness of her voice matched her skin and her eyes.

I took a deep breath. “Do you still want to play ping pong?”

“I think it’s time for lunch,” she said.

“Good idea.”

Juanita and I lived on the same floor of the same wing, with a dozen other amputees. I had a three-person room, but the other two beds were empty. After lights-out you were supposed to stay in your room, but once you got to know the routine of the nursing staff you could ignore the rules a bit. Sometimes patients needed to walk around at night because they couldn’t sleep.

Juanita came into my room at eleven o’clock. That was right after the nurses went to a reduced schedule and the halls were dark. I had been thinking of her, and my erection, all day. It had probably been six months since I felt that hard. There’s something about the stress of a war zone, especially Iraq with those fucking IEDs, and knowing any day could be your last. Then there was the bomb with my name on it, which I assumed had killed off whatever potential for sex had still existed in me. It was another reason I was apprehensive about going home. How do I say to my wife, ‘Honey, not only do I have one leg, but, as a bonus, I can’t have sex any more.’

She entered on foot. In fact, Juanita was able to walk fine, but the nurses made her use a wheel chair because they didn’t want her to fall and not be able to catch herself.

She entered my curtained bedchamber like a spirit, a fantasy come true. I turned my face to her and whispered, “Hello.” With her good arm she pushed her pajamas and underwear to the floor and stepped out of them. It took nothing more than the sight of her nakedness for my erection to return with a vengeance. I pushed the covers away. She lifted the elastic band of my pajamas and helped me push them over my one-point-two legs. The cool air only heightened my arousal. She gripped me gently and I had to clench my teeth to keep from shouting with pleasure. She unbuttoned her pajama top and let it fall to the floor. Juanita was amazingly capable for a person with one arm.

She stepped on the rail of my bed and was about to climb in when it hit me: wait a minute, I’m married. She sensed my hesitation, even though I said nothing and made no obvious gesture. Yet, something real had ballooned between our panting bodies.

“What is it?” she asked, pausing over me, her breasts so close I could have licked them.

“Listen,” I whispered, “you are absolutely gorgeous, and I’m horny as hell, but I’m also married. I don’t know if I really want to do this.”

She looked at me for several seconds but I could read the expression on her face. The heat we had generated began to dissipate as though a breeze had blown past us. She stepped down to the floor and quickly pulled her pajamas back on. For a moment I couldn’t believe I blew such an amazing opportunity. What has happened to me? I watched with sadness as a patch of smooth skin on her hips was covered with wrinkled cotton cloth.

Then she said, “You are so right. It was a stupid idea.” She turned and left.

I dressed myself and let my head fall to the pillow. The room was lonelier and colder than it had been.

I didn’t see Juanita for two days, mainly because I read a book and the newspapers in my room, and I had physical therapy classes. I knew I was avoiding her. At the same time, I felt as though I had saved my marriage.

During those days I had several phone calls with my wife and sons. It was fun hearing about home and we talked about things we were going to do, but I had to keep reminding them about my wheelchair. My wife was nervous about that, about my new body shape. I could hear it in her voice, and my feelings of inadequacy returned. I couldn’t blame her: she marries a guy who’s perfectly healthy and now he has one leg.Once again I had the sense that it wasn’t going to be the same, that she was going to love me a little bit less.

After a couple of days I missed Juanita’s company so I went down to the day room when I thought she would be there. I found her reading by a window. I wheeled next to her and she looked up and smiled.There were several other people in the room, playing ping pong and watching television.

I touched the back of her hand with my fingers and once again felt her warmth. It was like a drug. “I hope you aren’t mad at me,” I said.

“I assumed you were angry with me,” she said.

“Not at all. In fact, I’m curious to know what your idea was. Why did you say ‘it was a stupid idea.’?”

She looked around the room. “We can’t talk here. Can I come see you tonight?” She added quickly, “just to talk.”

I laughed. “Sure.” Then I pulled out my book. “Do you mind if I sit by the window here and read with you?”

“I would love that.”

We read until dinner time and then returned to our rooms. The hands of my clock moved maddeningly slow through the evening hours. I tried to read but couldn’t. A series of images flowed through my head: Juanita naked, my wife, Juanita’s breasts, my wife, Juanita’s dark pubic hair against her light brown skin, my wife.

The nurses changed shifts and made rounds. The hallway lights dimmed. Juanita stepped through my curtain at eleven-thirty. I rested my hand on her waist. She leaned over and kissed me.

“I missed you,” she said.

“I want to hear your stupid idea,” I said.

In what seemed like seconds her pajama bottoms and underwear were on the floor and my body’s response was so instantaneous I thought I heard cotton threads tearing below the covers. I flung the covers off and frantically pushed my own pajamas around my stump. She removed her top and climbed over me, but this time nothing came between us.

“My stupid idea was to practice having sex,” she said after she had arranged her naked body next to mine. She teased my erection with her fingers. There was something about her touch that drove me wild.

“Practice?” I said. “Since when do humans need to practice.”

“Typical male attitude,” she said. “You know there is an art to this.”

“Can I be your student?”

Then her face was serious. “You see, I am very worried about my husband accepting me when I return home. I have to know that, even with one arm, I can be sexy.”

I didn’t have time to ponder this because apparently the talking was over. With her good arm she pushed herself up. Her body was so gorgeous I hardly noticed her stump. And she seemed to pay no attention to mine. The contrast was striking: mine was a severed thigh, large, like a cut from a fallen tree. Her stump had once been a firm and shapely arm. Now it protruded from her shoulder like a third breast. I didn’t have much time to dwell on this, because she was on a mission, and she went about it like an infantry squad on patrol. We explored each other’s bodies for several excruciating minutes. I slid a finger between her legs and found it warm and wet.

She giggled. “This oven’s been preheated for hours,” she said.

She climbed on top of me and we discovered that our stumps left us feeling strangely off-balance. However, I found that if I put one foot on the floor, while lying on my back, I had better control. She used her one arm to prop herself over me, and I supported her waist with my two hands. I lowered her gently onto me while she struggled to contain her voice. I had the feeling she was ordinarily a screamer.

I think it was the best ninety seconds of my life. The need to keep quiet made it almost unbearable, but we peaked noiselessly before collapsing into a sweaty heap of partial limbs and bandages. We said nothing for several moments. There were no questions, no discussion, no analysis. We simply savored the most exquisite moment of our lives. And as we lay there, with our breathing subsiding to a normal tempo, I realized that I still had one foot firmly planted on the floor. A foot in reality, and the rest of me in heaven.

She left the room as she had come in, dissolving through the curtains like an apparition. I wondered for a moment whether it had been a dream. But I knew by the limpness I now felt that it was real. I realized then, as I lay alone, still savoring her scent and the feel of her hair and skin, that it was human contact that I had been craving. I suspected that we both needed to expose ourselves, stumps and all, to another human besides a medical professional and have that other human accept us without condition. It was a test, and we both passed. I understood her stupid idea, which was not so stupid.

Of course, we tested that theory a dozen times over the next several weeks. After all, one wants to get these things right. Juanita brought oil and we massaged each other. We experimented with different positions. I got good at having sex with one-point-two legs and it motivated me to pay more attention to my artificial limbs briefings. 

I am now at the end of my convalescent stay in Germany. Juanita left a few days ago. Myself and several others are scheduled to fly tomorrow to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, where our families will meet us. That’s where the initial greeting will take place. That’s where my wife and sons will see me in all my glory for the first time. But now I am ready.

Juanita visited me one final time to say good-bye. She made her stealthy entrance at eleven-thirty, but did not push her pajamas to the floor. My body by that point had been conditioned to respond like a salivating dog. She looked sympathetically at my erection and gave it a little squeeze.

“I came to say good-bye, to you and your friend,” she said.

“What?” I must have looked like a little boy who has just been denied an ice cream cone.

She giggled. “It’s time to end our little romance. But you have helped me in a way that all of the therapists and trainers and counselors could not have. You have reminded me that I am still a healthy woman and I can be a sexy wife to my husband. I am strong now. Thanks to you.”

I realized she was right, of course, even though it meant we would not have one last roll in the hospital bed as I had fantasized about all day. On the other hand, I knew that I, too, had the confidence to go home to my wife without my leg and say, ‘but look at the bright side, honey: I can have some damn good sex.’ 

I held Juanita’s hand. “I thought greeting my family was going to be hard. This is even harder.”

She kissed me. “Good bye. I love you,” she said.

Now I stare at the ceiling, elated, nervous. I loved Juanita, but I know now that I am still in love with my wife. It’s all a question of confidence. If I am confident, she will be okay with my new limitations. Yet, my stomach is rattling with excitement. I feel like I am going to float away, but I know what to do about that. I put one foot on the floor.