He lay on his side on a torn mat in front of the mirrored wall, his eyes on his blue shorts not the leg as he slowly swung the stump back and forth. Perverse, pervert. He curled his lip. Not when it’s your own leg, jackass. He tried not to look at the others in the room unless they couldn’t see him. Everyone was missing at least part of a leg or arm.
“Uh uh, not that one,” The physical therapist, Mike this time, pushed him over onto his stomach and placed a hand on the silicone sleeve on the stump, feeling for placement before gently holding it down. “Brace yourself here and raise the other leg, or it’s going to start hurting here.” He tapped along Beau’s butt cheek and down his other thigh. “Don’t want that psychotic nerve pain.”
Beau looked up at Mike in the mirror. “Sir?”
“Sciatic. We call it psychotic cuz it drives people cah-razy!” Mike hunkered down and lifted Beau’s right leg to an uncomfortable height.
SonovaBITCH! “That’s a little painful, sir.” He swallowed back the pain and counted to eight before it dissipated. It didn’t matter how much he grimaced or grunted or pulled away, they did what they wanted to him, this Mike, Robert or Mary Beth with their pushing, twisting and lifting. He had not only lost part of a leg, but total control over how much other people could touch him.
“Do you have a desk job? Of course you don’t. How does one lose a leg at a desk?”
Beau locked eyes with Mike in the mirror. “I own a food trailer. This,” He patted his thigh. “This was from a vehicle accident, sir. We discussed it.”
Mike didn’t answer, but he looked away. “I think Mr. Alan is on his way over…” His voice trailed off as he stood and walked away.
“Sir, I’m scheduled for a full hour with you. Sir?”
Mike was gone. And there was no one named Alan in the vicinity. Beau heaved a sigh and rolled over onto his back, waved the stump at the mirror before attempting a few sit-ups.
He had been in physical therapy for six months. Even when they said he could stop, he only reduced it from three days a week to one, and then joined a gym. Becks accused him of using all the time in gyms and arenas to avoid her, that he was laboring under some misguided notion that constant activity and swimming would grow the leg back.
Avoiding her. That he could do at work. There were always things that needed to be done with the trailer. Prep work, cleaning, inventory, even under the hood of his truck he could usually find something to keep him occupied in his off hours. His mechanical training in the Coast Guard, his aerospace engineering degree, his love of just tinkering with something, taking it apart and putting it back together more efficiently — any of these could be used to avoid her, but not PT. She didn’t understand that now, he had to be physically stronger to compensate for the loss. And if anything, she was the one avoiding him.
When he got tired, or wanted to go home after a long day of flipping burgers and smiling through pissy customer requests, he recalled a man, a marine who lost both legs. The gunny had stopped exercising, ate himself out of several increasingly larger prostheses until he had no choice but to be pushed around in a bariatric wheelchair. The story had been part of his obituary. A murder suicide. Beau didn’t want Becks to leave him, not now when he still needed assistance, but he didn’t want to know how well she could handle a shotgun either. He especially didn’t want to know whether she had indeed pushed the bike over. After a swim or a workout, and a shower, he would bring her flowers, tuberose and gardenias, their strong scent to keep her from complaining yet again about the lingering undertones of greasy fried potatoes that clung to him.
He got up and put on his leg, rocking his stump into place. Mike was chuckling over another patient, so Beau asked for someone else at the desk, for the next time, and headed out.
He stopped at the flower cart on Eustice Ave, picked up a bunch of sweet-smelling pink and yellow lilies. The last bunch was still wilting in the vase on the counter.
Not too long ago, Becks had showed him a site she and her friends had just found — howtobeaman.com. The ladies had cackled and crowed and labeled it a farce. “Men are so clueless they need a how-to site!” Beau had a mother, a sister and a wife. Even if he could not make sense of them, he knew better than to point out the many how-to books, magazines, websites, all explaining female contrivances to women. But he had joined in with their laughter, and checked the site when he was alone. And he was glad he did.
It was less about how to be a man — he had the body parts, he knew their functions — and more about how to be a man around women, the type of man others were born knowing how to be. That they weren’t, that he wasn’t the only clueless one out there was a revelation to him. He wanted to shout about this amazing site from the rooftops. Instead, it became his manual. Every day, he checked at least one of the many pages. “How to Get Her Out of the Closet and Into the Bed” told him t-shirts were for the gym, not date night. He figured that had to be why Becks begged off the last one, his sloppy attire, and he planned to wear his corduroy blazer to the next one. “You Got Her Attention, Now Give it Back” explained that sometimes women simply wanted to be heard, that not every complaint, even the ones that demanded “why can’t you/he/she…” needed to be addressed and solved, but that they should all be acknowledged. Repeating Becks’ complaints with a blank stare worked. She came to him with fewer of them now. And the “Twelve Non-Lame, Can’t Miss, Guaranteed to Knock More Than Her Socks Off Gifts” tab revealed that women liked flowers and to keep her well-stocked in them. He bought her a new bouquet every week.
Their side of the duplex was dark and Becks car was nowhere to be seen. Most days, she made it home before he did. He checked his phone. No missed messages, no voicemail from her about why she was running late.
Inside, he found a large envelope on the dining room table. He didn’t recognize the return address, The Keeton/Shawe Law Group, but Becks had scratched off her name and work address and written ‘Beau’ over it in her basic block script. He smiled. Maybe it was directions to where she was, a scavenger hunt-type game. He emptied it out and found it contained a week’s worth of mail, junk flyers and catalogues for kitchen equipment, an unmarked sealed envelope, and a tax form with some boxes already filled in. He took out his phone and pulled up her number.
“Hey, hey! Where you at?”
“Ooh, ‘elsewhere’ Can you give me a hint? Is it clothing optional?”
“I left you something on the table.” Her voice was flat.
“Yeah, I got it. We already filed the taxes, babe,” He picked up the sealed envelope. His full name, Jacob Beau Scott II, was typed in the bottom corner. She had never called him Jacob.
“That’s for next year.”
He looked closer at the tax form. She had filled it in using her maiden name of Coxwell. “Becks? Where are you?”
“Right now, I’m at the airport. I’m going away for a week. Or longer.” Behind her words, a canned voice announced the no parking policy.
“Like a vacation, away?”
“Yeah, a vacation.”
He sat down and stared at the sealed envelope. Keeton/Shawe’s billboard said they practiced family law. “Becks, shouldn’t we talk about this? I mean, if I’d known you had vacation time I could have arranged a three-day weekend.”
“You don’t understand. I’m taking a vacation from you.”
His voice cracked with panic “Is this about the physical therapy? Because I can stop. Or, how about you join me at the gym? I’ll do the yoga.”
“It’s not about the therapy, Beau. It’s about you,” The loudspeaker asked for attention. “Look, that’s my flight. I’ll call you.”
“I love you.” The line went dead.
Beau inspected the lilies still in his hand, then slammed them on the table, beating at it again and again until nothing was left but shreds of green tissue and stems and petals scattered all over. It was the first time she hadn’t said ‘I love you’ back. He waited for familiar waves of anxiety to come over him, but a part of him was relieved, and when that relief took hold, it grew.
* * *
The more time that passed, the less time she spent in his head. He immersed himself in the trailer, opening early and closing late, then going to work out for an hour or two. The gym filled up in the late evenings, the floor mats covered with people contorted in awkward positions, staring at their phones. He preferred the pool although he found others were unnerved at the sight of his leg and left quickly when he set down his crutches and dove in, using his whole leg like a rudder. He never had to share a lane.
* * *
It was late on a Tuesday. Beau was tired, from the long hours and a good workout, but he was feeling better about himself. One of his regular customers noticed Beau wasn’t wearing his wedding ring, and she dropped a business card in the tip jar. The card stated she specialized in divorce law and for the first time, the words didn’t make him weary. That night, he pulled his truck up to the duplex. A light was on in his living room. Becks.
Her car was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she had been dropped off. Changed her mind and wanted him back. The online site recommended giving a woman her space after an argument. Apologize, and a man should always be ready to apologize, and listen.
He was willing to listen. He opened the door.
Dropped off or not, she had cleaned out the house. Some boxes were on the bed, she left the bed, good. His computer was on the counter, his clothes were still in the closet, his crutches leaned against the wall where the TV had been mounted but everything else was gone. He tried to dredge up a small flame of disgust, but came up empty. Instead, he checked for upcoming sales on TVs. The Mountaineers had finally made the playoffs and he didn’t want to miss it.
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