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Turning the Planets Around

TURNING THE PLANETS AROUND

Love in the Time of Spinal Cord Injury

“Full fathom five thy father lies,

of his bones are coral made,

those were the pearls that were his eyes,

nothing of him that doth fade,

but doth suffer a sea change,

into something rich and strange…”  The Tempest

For Robbie

                                          LUCKY

 

I’m looking at his legs.

Robbie and I are pedaling down the coast from Rincon to the Ventura County Fairgrounds, a 22-mile round trip.  The blue Pacific is to our right.  On the left, a two-mile hillside stretch of yellow daisies tumbles onto the windy bike path.  Soon we will reach the point just before the trestle bridge where we will hop off our bikes and carry them out over the rocky beach to the tide line.  Then we will rest.

His legs.  The calves long and toned with lean muscle.  His thighs, with the quads clearly defined through black Lycra bike shorts.  I like following these legs.

A hundred yards away, Highway 101 hums with traffic.  But we are down close to the surf and that is what we hear. We cycle past RVs parked along the edge of the perimeter road, almost on the beach.  We smell the charcoal lighter fluid and hot dogs.  We eye the portable tables set with bowls of barbecue potato chips. We whiz past kids running full tilt with their kites.  We drink from our water bottles, imagining the salt-rimmed margaritas waiting for us down the road.  Robbie holds his water bottle arm’s length from his head, shooting it in a strong stream into his mouth.  He lets me catch up with him and then sprays water at me, laughing.  It feels cool and reckless and good, though I think for a moment that he’s careless with his water, that he should be saving it for the hard ride back in the headwind.  I will probably have to give him some of mine. 

That’s okay.  I’m the luckiest woman alive.

To be in this place on this day with this man feels lucky.  How many women wheel into a dream of love in their middle years, a love that makes them feel 18 again?  How many 50-year-olds are adored, ravished, excited, joyful, satisfied?  The best part is, I trust it.  I trust that this will be the defining relationship of my life.  This will be the love that saves me, that brings me everything I’ve waited for, everything I’ve earned.  This will be my time.  I feel life pulse in my fingertips.

We reach the spot just before the trestle and set out over the rocks with our bikes.  The beach is wide here and the stones are large.  No one bothers to stumble over them out to the point for a swim.  Robbie and I are in one of our favorite places: an empty beach.  The rocks stop close to the shoreline and we take off our shoes and stretch out on the sand.

            “I can’t believe this day,” I say.

He reaches for my hand and pulls me close enough for a long kiss.  He lies prone, his head resting in the crook of one arm, looking at me with one eye.

            “It’s all good,” he says.  Then he turns over and I see an erection pushing out through his bike shorts. 

            “Do you need some help with that?” I ask.

            “You bet.”

I’m getting better with my hands.

 

CHAPTER 1

           

            “Stupid Goofballs.”

            That is the name of a club with only two official members: Robbie and me.

            It is so named because that’s how we act when we see each other. It describes this crazy love relationship that we’ve gotten into late in our lives.  We are nutty over each other like adolescents, like chimps swinging from vines, impulsive, reckless, whooping it up, as if to say we’ve survived a whole bunch of heartbreak and we’re still strong enough to cut our own meat, so let’s have sex!  We’ve already had marriages and children and careers and all the stuff people call life while they’re on the way to you-know-what.

            Bullet-proof Robbie doesn’t think much about you-know-what.  He’s gone off scuba-diving in Micronesia.  I am at home in LA, eating lunch over the sink.

 

The call comes from the ship Thorfinn at two in the afternoon. 

“It’s Brian.” 

I recognize the voice of Robbie’s son.

 “There’s been an accident.”

My blood shrinks in my veins.

 “We think Dad got the bends.”  There is a beat. 

“He’s paralyzed from the waist down.”

            Stupid goofball.

 

            It has been an unimportant day, a small narrowing of circles as I pack for a two-week vacation with Robbie.  I am to meet him in Honolulu as he makes his way back from a week long scuba diving trip in Truk Lagoon, a tiny spot 1,200 miles from Guam where, toward the end of World War II, the U.S. sank the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Fourth Fleet.  A world famous dive site, Truk has been on Robbie’s map for a long time. 

            When the phone rings, I am standing in my kitchen, checking off my travel list: vitamins, swim suit, sun block, camera, maps of Maui.  It is a featureless March day in Los Angeles, the last day of the month, the day everything changes.

 

Accident report, as recorded by Robbie’s son Brian

 

Friday, 3/31/06

 

1.       At approximately 8:00 AM, dive on Nippo Maru.

2.       Dive to approximately 148’, averaging 37 minutes of bottom time.

3.       Did our stops as per the dive computer; last stop was approximately 15’ for 10 minutes.

4.       Dad gave me the OK sign to surface.  I surfaced at approximately 9:00 AM.

5.       At approximately 9:05 AM, I noticed that Dad was hanging onto the side of the boat while everyone else was coming aboard.  I looked down to him and noticed that his pupils were dilated and that his regulator was out of his mouth. 

6.       His speech was slurred when he was asked if he was OK.  I told Mike, the Dive Master to look at him.  Mike said, “Let’s get him out of the water.”

7.       Mike and others pulled Dad out of the water and onto the boat.  They laid him down. He was still disoriented and slow to respond.  We went back to the Thorfinn.

 

Other words follow about bubbles in the spinal cord, the time difference to Micronesia, how and when to contact each other, hyperbaric decompression chambers, boats and evacuation flights from small islands to larger ones and then on to the Naval hospital in Guam.

            I see the dark stone flecked with umber and gray in my granite counter tops.  There is the window sill, the garden outside still mute from a non-blooming winter of drought.  Two o’clock on a Friday.  The quotidian landmarks of my kitchen: counter, sink, cupboard, clock.  Like a timepiece stopped on the picture-book wall of a childhood story, Dali-esque, or like the clocks stopped after a bomb drops or the power goes out. 

Two o’clock, the sun too high for shadows.  I am land-locked, unable to move.  He is

paralyzed at sea.