Allison sat cross-legged on the bed. She put her body in this position, using her hands to tuck both feet underneath. Soon, the man she wanted to sleep with would return from the bathroom and unfold her limbs. He would find all the hidden parts. Atrophied legs marbled blue with veins, the tightening knots of muscle between her shoulder blades. The scar on her back.
“It looks like a zipper,” she said, before anyone new saw it. “Or train tracks.”
That morning, she looked in the mirror and ran her fingers over her calves. The injury made her body feel like a glacier. She couldn’t see daily changes but felt constant seismic activity underneath her skin. Patches of sensation prickled like television static, or her feet would spasm as if possessed.
Two years ago, Allison leaned against a window at a college party. Guests came straight from commencement, gowns and mortarboards tucked under their arms. A group of fraternity brothers shuffled past and she steadied herself against the screen, which popped out of its hinges. Her friend grabbed her shoulder – the surgeon later told Allison the shift in position saved her life – but couldn’t get a strong enough grip to prevent the fall. Allison landed in the yard one flight down and suspected she could no longer walk even as the EMTs lifted her onto an ambulance stretcher.
After the ICU, Allison was transferred to a rehabilitation facility. Patients were expected to attend a community support group, and one week, the theme was sexual health. Edna, the resident nurse, promised the meeting would be mortifying but informative.
“You don’t have to go,” Allison’s mother said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “There’s no pressure.”
Allison’s family treated her like an emotional pipe bomb after the accident, bracing for a meltdown that never came. She went to the meeting if only to get away from her parents’ nervous company.
Patients wheeled into a conference room and sat in a semi-circle. Allison scratched her back brace. The velcro was on the inside, turning the contraption into an itchy plastic clam.
“The number one question we get,” Edna said, fumbling with a VHS player. “Is about intercourse.”
The television clicked to life and the words “Sex and Spinal Cord Injury” faded on screen. A woman in a baggy suit with shoulder pads stood at a desk, clutching a plastic erection. She looked eerily like a gym teacher Allison remembered from high school. Even so, the gym teacher gave the dildo an aggressive stroke, and Allison blushed. She rested a hand on her hot cheek and felt relieved. Since checking in, she developed a fear that her remaining body functions would disappear as well, including blood flushing her face.
That night, Allison caught herself thinking about the forearms of the overnight nurse who checked her blood pressure and changed the catheter. Being human was so irreversible, she realized, no matter how dumb the condition could be. The thought was clear in her mind, the first in a long time.
Once, several months after being discharged from the hospital, Allison was waiting in line at a coffee shop when a stranger tapped her shoulder. She was used to unsolicited attention and waited for him to offer a healing tea or a patronizing pep talk.
“Excuse me,” he said, gesturing to his crotch. “Can you, you know…”
Allison blinked. He was asking about sex, right there, in front of the chocolate croissants. So casual, he could’ve been asking for directions.
“I have to ask the big question,” a different man asked, this time in a bar. “I think you know what I mean.”
Her body emboldened curiosity, and men were especially shameless. Or maybe not shameless enough, since even the most inappropriate strangers used innuendo. She almost wished the questions were more explicit.
Nobody asked, “Can you orgasm?” or “In what position do you fuck?” Men wanted this information, didn’t they? Maybe the question was more existential. People thought desire disappeared after the accident, as if a feeling didn’t exist if it couldn’t reach below her waist.
Allison had sex for the first time with a boy in her freshman biology seminar. During the lab, she caught him glancing at her over the rim of a microscope. She spent months wondering how his wheat-colored hair would feel in her fist instead of modeling osmosis, or whatever the professor put on the syllabus that week. He kissed her in the supply closet, next to the methylene kits, three days before the final. She touched his curls and thought, getting an answer was the best part.
After the accident, consciousness and body became two separate things. Sex seemed impossible for months until a therapist pointed out that being one and whole were not the same thing, and besides, everybody puts themselves in pieces.
When he introduced himself at the bar, there was no discomfort in his expression. He asked lame questions, like, was she a dog person, or did she enjoy her job. She asked him the same.
“I work in finance,” he said, and Allison looked disgusted, so he immediately course-corrected. “I’m joking. I’m a history teacher.”
She laughed. Strangers were often uncomfortable around her. Their eyes wouldn’t land straight, they spoke to the space above her left shoulder and made panicked comments about her upper-body strength. This behavior was easy to identify, but when someone wasn’t passing judgement, the ease was more difficult to describe.
She invited him back to her apartment, and he said yes, and they went, as people do. After arriving, the history teacher went to the bathroom, and she arranged herself on the bed. There was a flush and a tap on the bedroom door. He leaned on the edge of the mattress, resting his hand on her thigh. Allison took a deep breath and yanked her t-shirt out of the top of her jeans.
Mary Kate McGrath is a writer and journalist living in Boston. She is a graduate of Emerson College where she studied nonfiction writing, literature, and music history.