Saving Each Other
I winced as I pressed down on the pedals, rolling myself away from the apartment complex where I'd been hosted the night before. Ow. Sweet Jesus, why did even my feet hurt?
My body was ensnared in a steel trap of pain. Never had I woken up so sore, not in all my adolescent years of dance class and soccer matches and backpacking. My neck and shoulders were impossibly tight. When I glanced left towards traffic, to merge onto the street, a lightning bolt stabbed my shoulder. “OW!” I yipped, more scared than hurt. Cautiously, I turned my head to the right. The same electrical storm erupted in my back. This is okay, I told myself, pedaling into the street. Maybe the muscles will loosen up if I keep moving.
Hours later, I was still rolling my head from side to side, desperate to ease the tension in my upper back. Traffic whizzed steadily past, and my left ear was growing irritated from the constant sound of truck engines.
Panic began to rise in my chest. I shouldn’t be in this much pain on Day Four. The noise of traffic shouldn’t bother me. After all, there was plenty of it ahead: thousands of miles of busy highways lay between me and Florida. It would take months of cycling. Months of pain.
I bit my lips and fought back tears, cycling determinedly. Perhaps I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d poured my money, energy, and time into this obsession for the last eight months, only to learn today that I couldn’t actually ride my bike across the country. I didn’t have what it takes. I was wrong.
In an attempt to calm myself, I stopped and stretched my arms above my head, breathing deeply. Pain stabbed at my back. A semi truck was approaching from behind, its roar increasing as it came. I braced myself for the noise, but it seemed to scream through my head as it passed.
“ARGHH!” I cried, overwhelmed by my discomfort. My voice was lost in the howl of the engine. I clapped my hands over my ears, pressing them against my head. Squeezing my skull felt so good. It was only then that I realized I had a headache. A muscle twinged in my back, then another. My body felt abused, mistreated. Angry. I squeezed my head harder, taking a deep breath.
“I love you,” I said, my voice muffled inside myself. It sounded like someone speaking underwater. “I love you. This is okay.” I closed my eyes, listening to the whooshing noises of my own inner ocean. “I’m sorry you’re hurting.”
Standing at the side of the road with my hands over my ears and my eyes shut was like being in a bathtub: confined and safe, the world muted by warm water. My heartbeat in my ears. Everything okay.
I recalled the time two years earlier, just after my knee surgery, when I’d demanded a bath. My ACL had been reconstructed using a piece of my hamstring, and my entire leg was enveloped in a black brace with so many velcro straps that my Vicodin-dosed brain couldn’t keep them straight.
I’d refused to let my parents come down to my college in Oregon and take care of me. “I’ll be fine,” I’d insisted on the phone. “I’ve got Arlo. And my girlfriends. They’ll take care of me.”
And they did. As I lay useless and drugged on my narrow dorm cot, Sarah, Leda, Hannah, and my boyfriend Arlo organized themselves into a dedicated, round-the-clock caregiving team. For two long weeks, they made sure I wasn’t left alone for more than a few hours at a time. In the midst of their own busy class schedules and extracurriculars, these angels catered to my every need. They brought me food, helped me struggle to the bathroom at the end of the hallway, read aloud from our textbooks, and sat by my bed to kept me company. Arlo and my girlfriends were in and out of my room so frequently that the door to the hallway was left chronically open.
I was barely aware of the generosity being heaped upon me. I mouthed the words, “thank you,” on a daily basis, but felt only faint nausea and the pulsing pain in my leg. Groggy with painkillers and out of my mind with boredom, I became obsessed with two things: listening to “1234” by Feist, and getting a hot bath.
“Baaaaaath,” I’d moan, drawing out the syllable as Sarah and Leda gazed down at me. They shouldered their backpacks, laughing. “You sound like a sheep,” Sarah commented.
“Bath?” I croaked pitifully, my eyes wide.
“Aww,” crooned Leda.
“Bath, bath, bath, bath,” I sang, lolling my head from side to side. I was hamming it up, doing anything for a laugh. These brief visits from my friends were the highlights of my otherwise dull days spent in bed. I didn’t want them to leave.
“We gotta go to class, Liv,” giggled Sarah. “I’m sorry. We’ll bring you dinner, okay?”
“My angels, you must listen,” I whispered, reaching weakly for their hands as if I was on my death bed. “Just... bring me... a bath.”
It was a tall order. The freshman dorms only had showers, which meant we’d need to transport me and my leg brace to someplace with a bathtub. But while I spent my days staring at the ceiling and listening relentlessly to Feist on my laptop’s tinny speakers, Arlo and the girls made it happen.
“One, two, three, four, tell me that you love me more,” I trilled as Arlo slid his arm beneath my torso, carefully lifting me to my feet.
“C’mon Girl,” he said gently, handing me my crutches and leading me to the hallway where Sarah and Leda were waiting. “We’re getting you a bath.”
My friends had moved mountains for me. They’d obtained a key to the restricted dorm elevator, coerced a campus security officer to transport me in a golf cart, and asked an upperclassman friend if we could occupy her bathroom for the evening. All told, it took the coordinated efforts of about six people to satisfy my craving for a bath.
I was oblivious. All I remember is the dull aching pain in my leg as the golf cart bumped along the sidewalk, and the way my voice sounded in the elevator as we headed up to the third floor of the upperclassmen dorm. “One, two, three, four, five, six, nine, or ten... Money can't buy you back the love that you had then...”
With another borrowed key, Arlo lead us into our friend’s apartment. None of her five roommates were home: we had the place to ourselves. I yanked off the “Recycling Is Sexy” tshirt that I’d been living in for the last four days, as the bathtub began to fill. The medicine I’d been sweating out since the surgery felt toxic and sticky on my skin. Desperate to be clean, I yanked down my sweatpants and accidentally smacked my brace. My leg throbbed anew.
I winced and gave up, lying back on the grimy, cold linoleum. It was only when I saw Leda and Sarah’s surprised faces that I realized this was the first time they’d seen me naked. All three of them looked rattled. I was too drugged, and too determined, to care. “Help me?” I whispered, but they were already reaching for me, pulling down my pants the rest of the way and hauling my inert body into the tub. Their hands were all over me, grasping at my naked skin. Soon I was submerged in warm water, with my right leg hanging out over the edge of the tub, staying high and dry. “Thank you,” I breathed, smiling up at my angels. “This is the best.”
I don’t remember the rest of that night. Somehow my friends got me back into bed in my dorm room, and I woke up the next day smelling better and wearing fresh clothes.
Months later, a junior named Matt would approach me on the sidewalk. I’d smile and lean forward on my crutches when he asked me how I was doing.
“Great,” I chirped, “the surgery went really well. I’ve got a lot of PT ahead of me, but I’ll be off crutches soon.” I studied Matt's face. “How are you?”
He confessed that he’d been there the night of my bath. I’d forgotten Matt was one of the people who lived in that apartment. He'd been walking home, pondering the news he'd just received: that his mother was dying of terminal cancer, and her health insurance wasn’t going to cover further treatments. Angry with the world and heartbroken about his mom, Matt had decided to kill himself. “And then I walked in the door, and saw you,” he said.
Apparently I’d been half naked, spilling out of the bathroom doorway into the hall, bathed in a pool of light. Matt had plopped down on the living room couch in the darkness, gazing down the hallway as my friends and boyfriend tenderly blotted my body dry with towels. “You were so pathetic," Matt said, shaking his head. "But the way they were caring for you... It just seemed like the world wasn’t so bad after all. Like maybe things could get better for me.” He grinned. “And they have. Things have gotten better since that night.”
Matt graduated soon after, and went on to discover himself as a writer of erotica. But I didn't know that at the time. At the time, I was just straddling my bike on the side of the road, letting go of my head, listening to another truck scream by.
Things are going to get better, I murmured to myself. If my obsession with getting that bath three years ago had somehow saved Matt's life, then who knew what positive effects this bike trip might have on the world. On strangers I hadn’t met yet. On me.
I was learning to follow my obsessions without question, to listen to my intuition. I was learning to be daringly selfish in the pursuit of my desires. I wasn’t good at it yet. But I was practicing.
This bike trip was good practice.
Here's a picture of me and two of my angels, freshman year of college: