(W)hole Excerpt

Chapter One

Looking out toward the Charles River, Elizabeth stopped short at the sight of an unexpected figure. At first all her eye caught was the glint of sun against metal. As was her habit, her head darted quickly to confirm that it was round metal, that it was the spokes of a wheel. Usually when this happened to Elizabeth, the wheel turned out to be attached to a bicycle. This time it wasn’t a bicycle, but the very thing Elizabeth’s mind kept a constant watch for.

Across the water she could see a young man in a red wheelchair. He was sitting close to the edge and watching the swirling, dark water. His hands sat folded in his lap and he didn’t seem to notice the wind dancing with stray bits of his loosely tied black hair. He wore a brown coat, and jeans covered his compact legs. His feet were tucked neatly below him.

Time may have slowed. Though she was across the river, Elizabeth felt as though she stood just in front of him and they two were the only breathing creatures in the world. There was nothing else. I want you.

Elizabeth’s body threatened to wrench itself from her control. She could feel her skin flushing. Her gut ached and cried out. She didn’t know who he was, but she wished that she could. The longing started in her stomach and stretched up to her lungs and throat. Though she didn’t often see disabled men in the harsh New England climate, whenever she did see a wheelchair, the same reaction overtook her body.

For a moment she allowed herself to imagine being close to this man; brushing her fingers through his black hair, touching the muscles in his arms, and watching him adjust his lifeless legs. Even from here she could tell he was paraplegic and there was nothing temporary about the wheelchair.

“Hey, Elizabeth! What are you looking at?”

Elizabeth snapped out of her daze and saw her friends several yards ahead, waiting for her. “The water,” she said, “It’s so beautiful this time of year.”

She rushed ahead and dragged them with her so they would not have the chance to see the man. Just before they turned the corner, Elizabeth snuck one last glance back. He hadn’t moved, and his eyes remained locked on the rushing water.

The girls continued to walk through Cambridge for the rest of the afternoon. The air was mildly cold and whenever the wind picked up it felt like tiny bites on the skin. Occasional leaves from the carpet of yellow, red, and orange above their heads would suddenly be released and drift to the ground. The girls looked in shop windows and commented on what they liked and didn’t like. They planned for the days when they had money of their own.

“Is there a Gap around here?” Becky asked.

“There are other stores in the world, you know,” Amy said, “Look at that dress.”

She was pointing to a sweeping black ball gown with a halter top and no back.

“Where would you wear that?” Becky said.

“When I’m rich,” Amy said, “I’m going to wear things like that every day.”

Maureen said, “Look at that sweet little sundress next to it.”

It was white with little rosebuds. A smudge on the glass in front of it showed its popularity with window shoppers.

“Yeah, if you wore something like that people might think you’re innocent and nice,” Amy joked.

Maureen elbowed her, and Amy was about to say something else when Becky ran ahead and pointed at a home decorating store. “Oh,” she cried, “I can’t wait until I have a place all my own and I can decorate every room.”

Amy and Maureen looked at each other. “Housewife-in-training,” they said at the same time and laughed. It was their favorite way to tease Becky.

Elizabeth was in the back, thinking about the man she had seen. If only there was some way to find out who he was. It wasn’t fair. She almost wished that she hadn’t seen him so she wouldn’t have her desire awakened with no way to release it. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the feel of the air on her face, cooling the flush on her skin. She loved the sense fall gave that things were changing, but in predictable ways. As soon as the leaves turned colors and the temperature of the air dropped, winter was an inevitability beginning its journey to them.

As the sun began to set, Elizabeth and her friends made their way back to the subway. The girls’ feet pounded down the grimy steps into the depths of the building. They waited for the train in the deep and dimly lit station, and watched crumpled napkins and bits of newspapers get caught on the benches.

The train arrived rattling and whining. It ground to a halt and the doors swooshed open, air from the station rushing into the bright interior. Elizabeth sat on the seat, bouncing along with the train, while Becky and Maureen gossiped together about boys from their school, and Amy started conversations with strangers. The train sped toward Alewife station.

Her friends no longer bothered to ask Elizabeth what she had been up to. They saw each other every day at school, and by now everyone knew exactly how boring Elizabeth’s days were. At seventeen years old she already had well-formed routines that she rarely deviated from. Her friends thought she liked it that way. They had no way of knowing that habits kept her strong and able to withhold parts of herself from even them, her closest friends.

That night Elizabeth couldn’t sleep. She had put on her purple pajama pants and her white camisole pajama top, and she had brushed her teeth, done her physics homework, turned out the lights, and lay in bed. The night was thick and vast around her. The shade was pulled to within one inch of the ledge and she could see a sliver of darkness.

She heard a faint scratching that she took to be her mother’s pencil. Her parents, in the next room, were not asleep either. In all the years of her life Elizabeth had never managed to catch them asleep. Even as a little child with nightmares, whenever she ran to her parents’ room, she found her mother sitting at the dresser making lists and her father reading a book in bed. They were always so calm. Her father would pat the bed and little Elizabeth would climb up to hear a part of his book. She used to love those evenings listening to Plato and Marsilio Ficino.

What would he do if he knew the truth about his daughter? Would he look at her with disgust? Would he be unable to recognize her? In her nightmares Elizabeth often watched variations of her father’s face as he was let in on her secret. Whether he looked at her with anger, with pity, with fear, or with confusion, the end of the dream was always the same; he would turn from her and disappear.

Elizabeth had tried many times to forget the desires that haunted the back of her mind. Now that she was finishing high school and facing the choices of the rest of her life, she was trying even harder than before. For weeks she had tried to keep her mind away from disability. She moved her secret notebook out from under her bureau and hid it in the basement. What was the point though? As soon as she saw the man at the river, all those weeks of work meant nothing. Her body responded to him whether she wanted it to or not.

The house creaked as Elizabeth tiptoed out of her room, down the stairs, and into the living room. It was an old, solid house and every once in a while would give a little groan and settle itself. Elizabeth pulled open the door to the basement and musty air hit her. She felt dust on her bare feet as she stepped carefully down the stairs. The concrete floor was cold and Elizabeth walked carefully so as not to step on anything sharp that could be on the floor.

She went straight for the ironing room where they stored all the out-of-season clothing. As it was the beginning of September, the winter coats, scarves, and mittens were still there. The sweaters had already been brought up for the start of fall.

In the back corner, behind the garment bag that stored her mother’s wedding dress, was a cardboard box that claimed to contain a computer printer. Elizabeth knelt and felt the cold of the floor on her knees, even through the material of her pajama pants.

Slowly she pulled open the sides. On top was a stack of books that looked innocent enough. Should anyone happen to open the box it would just look like some old books of Elizabeth’s. However, the books had something in common. From Treasure Island to The Westing Game, they all had male characters with disabilities. Biting her lip, Elizabeth spread them out on the floor beside her.

Next she unpacked the videos. Dr. Strangelove, Born on the Fourth of July, Daredevil, Scent of a Woman, and George Wallace; all movies with disabled male characters. Under those were some loose pictures and then the prize: her notebook. Elizabeth lifted it out with trembling hands.

She had created the notebook thinking that she could move the sickness out of herself and contain it within the pages. Now she knew the foolishness of that plan. When she thought of the images in these pages her head felt hot and heavy and her stomach wrenched. It had somehow made her sickness more real, instead.

She packed the rest of the materials back into the box and opened the notebook’s cover. Inside were photographs she had taken, and pictures from magazines, or off the Internet. Wheelchairs, crutches, casts, paraplegics, amputees… The familiar tingling began between her legs.

Pressing the notebook closed against her chest, and wrapping her arms over it, she crept quietly back up to her room. After going through the familiar pictures again, savoring each, Elizabeth slid the notebook under her bureau, where it seemed to pulse with its black secret.

Back in her bed Elizabeth closed her eyes and let her hand creep down under the covers. In her mind she saw Long John Silver. He was fighting a storm at night, pacing the deck of the ship furiously with his one crutch pounding down with each step. His empty pant leg swung wildly in the wind. He maneuvered, turned, and wielded the crutch.

Elizabeth’s hand was inside her pajamas now, cool fingers touching skin that was rapidly heating up. An itch within her body had begun and she used her thoughts to make it stronger. Her body now begged for pressure.

Elizabeth gave it, pressing rhythmically. This was familiar to her. After all these years, she knew the effect that thoughts of disabled men would have on her and now she also knew how to satisfy the desire that came with those thoughts. It wasn’t until she took sex-ed in sixth grade that she figured out what that tingling sensation was. Many times in her childhood she felt it, but never dared give in to the urge to press. After that class, she let herself satisfy the itch.

Suddenly she saw the man from the Charles River in her thoughts. His hands were touching her bare arms and her skin became covered in goose bumps. In her imagination she leaned down and pressed her lips against his. Elizabeth curled her hands around his bicep muscles and she felt her hips try to press themselves against his lean body.

On her bed, Elizabeth’s body quaked. She pushed her fingers harder and harder. Her toes curled around the baseboard of her bed and she squeezed all the muscles in her legs. With a tiny sigh, only just barely released through her lips, a shudder went through her and she was limp.

She breathed deeply and pushed the hair that was sticking to her forehead off her face. Then she opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling. Though her body had relaxed, her mind was still tense. How had someone else’s pain and her pleasure become so closely linked?

Pleasure and guilt had always gone hand in hand for Elizabeth. Her first memory of these feelings was when she was four years old, but she knew they had begun long before that. Her four-year-old self recognized the desire as a familiar feeling. Just as she knew then that looking at disabled men felt good, she also knew she could never let anyone find out that she thought so. Secrecy wrapped itself around Elizabeth’s heart even in her most intimate moments.

Inside Elizabeth was a voice that told her terrible things. There’s something wrong with you. Sometimes for days she wallowed in the sick seduction of that voice. Her parents thought she was just being a teenager when she closed herself in her room. Often she sat on the floor and stared at nothing, listening to an endless tirade of her faults and she pinched herself to draw the pain out of her mind, to the outside of her body.

Though she believed this desire for disability was wrong, something to be destroyed, she couldn’t seem to do it. The desire was stronger than she was. Despite her best efforts, when a character in a book went to the hospital, she became excited. Deep inside she always hoped for an injury in stories. She was the only girl she knew who liked to watch war movies, and she did because the odds of injuries were better in those movies than others. Like any addiction, it seemed to be impossible to get rid of the thing that brought the greatest pleasure to her body.

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