From there, I graduate to squatting, hopping, lunging. They strap me into machines meant to stretch and strengthen the mangled quad and hamstring of my stumpy leg. I push up. I pull up. I sit up until my abs feel torn in two. I am given two small breaks for eating. On Sundays, I get a shower.
Many of these movements I do next to my one-legged roommate, the silent Shanna. Since we’re about the same age and have two good legs between us, people expect us to have a lot in common. We don’t. Her long hair is somehow always getting in my mouth and she looks like her personality is always on the verge of boring her face to sleep. It’s hard to tell, given how quiet she is, but I suspect she likes me even less than I like her, and the only thing I like about her is beating her. Which doesn’t happen as often as it should. She’s been in PT longer than me.
It’s hard to know what counts as progress in this place. At a certain point, we graduate to “wrestling class.” That’s where, at the end of the day, the PTs pick two of us to enter the wrestler’s circle together. Everyone else stands around and takes bets. The only rule is, first one who crosses the circle loses. Loser has to stay in the circle and pick their next opponent. They tell us wrestling class is a right of passage but it feels more like a cruel spectator sport. Everyone else has military training; I can’t fight and the only thing I can run is my mouth. It doesn’t matter how many opponents I pick, I always lose.
The PTs don’t tell us when we can expect new legs, let alone to get out of here. One morning, after Kate and Ruth have already left for the gym, no one comes to wheel us to our morning exercises. I press the call button.
“Our wheelchairs aren’t here yet,” I tell the nurse on call. “We have to get to PT.”
“Your wheelchairs have been canceled,” she replies.
“But then how are we supposed to get to PT?”
“That’s not my problem,” she says and hangs up.
Shanna and I share a rare moment of eye contact. After a moment, she swings her leg off the bed so I do, too. My bed is closer to the door – I manage to hop there faster. From there, it’s a torturous race down four long hallways, each of us hugging a wall, ignoring the other while simultaneously trying to beat her.
She wins because of a technicality (I had to hobble around a corpse being wheeled from its room). But since we’re both late, we’re given five laps around the gym. More torturous jumping with Shanna. I wish I could trip her. I miss my sister.
Every morning after that, we are expected to make our own way to the gym by 0600 (on the bright side, we get to use a crutch for balance once we’re there). I become adept at swinging my left stump for leverage and balance, which makes me more competitive with Shanna, whose one leg is longer than mine. Our handprints mark the cracked hallways; my right calf becomes huge. I’ve even come to accept my stump. I wash it on my own now, tracing the engorged lines of scar tissue, massaging the brutalized muscle, reawakening nerves and coaxing feeling into flesh I’d all but given up on.