Everyone in the town turned out to welcome him back, including Vitoria. Most of them wore fake and worried smiles, comforting themselves with pats on his back and quick, smooth platitudes. But Vitoria seemed to know better. She walked next to his wheelchair peppering him with questions that he found much more interesting than reassurances: What does it feel like? Does the missing leg still itch? If I touch your leg like this, can you feel it? How about like this? Can you still go to the bathroom by yourself? Will you ever be able to have sex with a girl?
The last question, asked in private some days later as he and Vitoria went down the street together—she walking, he rolling his wheelchair—made Gabriel flush. It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought about that. He had worked himself late at night in the privacy of his room—just to make sure, of course— and to his great relief everything seemed to still function. But to have this beautiful girl speak so freely about things he barely let himself imagine…Gabriel stuttered, unsure what to say.
Vitoria leaned toward him. Her slight floral scent, with an undertone of earth, drove him mad. “You have tried, haven’t you?”
“It’s a sin,” Gabrial managed to say, looking away from her cleavage.
Vitoria rolled her eyes. “It’s a perfectly normal biological need. You can’t listen to what the fathers say. You won’t go to Hell.”
Gabrial had never heard anyone talk that way. His love overflowed. Was she saying she wanted to have sex with him? The fog that had sat on him since returning from the hospital lifted, and something bright and hopeful took its place.
That night, locked in his bedroom, he forced himself out of his chair. He had to be able to walk, not just for himself, but for her. His arms, once strong from his years of acrobatics, had grown atrophied in the hospital. Wheeling himself around had brought back some of the muscle, but would it be enough? Slowly, clenching his teeth, he pressing into the wheelchair arms to lift the uselessness that was his one remaining leg. He managed to get a few inches up. It hurt more than anything he had ever felt…until he placed the foot on the floor and tried to put weight on it. He bit his tongue so as not to scream out loud. It took over an hour of rubbing his leg for the stabbing to ease. Then, just in case anything had changed, he made sure that he could still have sex with a girl. He made sure three times, and then he went to sleep.
With all the fervor once reserved for circus tricks, Gabriel practiced lifting himself up. Biceps taut and shaking, he put his toes on the ground. Two weeks later, the ball of his foot. In another two weeks, the heel. He was no stranger to practice and obsession, and he knew how to be patient. He practiced in private, telling no one but Vitoria who egged him on with words of encouragement and sometimes derision. With her help, he “borrowed” a pair of homemade crutches from an accident-prone neighbor who kept them in an unlocked back shed. He took his first step, after which he slept for a day. He took his second, crying silently from the pain. He walked to the bathroom by himself, not having to call his mother to wheel him in or his father to lift him to and from the chair. That night, he wept from relief.
Vitoria took to kissing him hello and goodbye like a little brother, on the cheek or the top of the head. Gabriel both hated and longed for it. Every time she left, he would look at the unicycle sitting against his wall, swear to himself and everything that was holy that he would ride it one day, and then would make sure he could still have sex.
A full year later, he walked out of his room using two elbow crutches he had fashioned and built himself. His mother fainted. His father fell to his knees, babbling a grateful prayer. Gabriel revived his mother, kissed them both, and then went back into his room for the unicycle. His mother almost fainted again, but after much shouting she settled for making him, from old rags, a very thick and protective kneepad for his remaining leg.
Gabriel didn’t tell her he wasn’t planning to ride with his feet, but with his hands.
Two weeks later, Vitoria’s family moved with only a day’s notice. He cried again, more than he ever had for his legs, great wracking sobs that shook his frame and flushed him with shame. Vitoria did not. It seemed she had moved countless times in her almost eighteen years of life, never with any notice and never with a forwarding address. She did not know why. She had learned not to ask, or her father grew violent. She had hoped they would stay longer here, but she accepted this turn of events with a shrug and a peck on the cheek. That she could remain dry-eyed, that she had not chosen to share with him this very basic fact of her existence, made it absolutely clear to Gabriel everything she did not feel for him.
Gabriel was fifteen. He threw himself into his practice. By the time he was eighteen, he had made enough money performing in nearby towns to buy himself a one-way ticket to America. When he left, all he took with him was his beloved unicycle.
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