Clay held on to himself with one hand. The other was braced against the shower's wall uneasily. He could not tell which sensation was more vivid in this moment: the soothing burn of the scalding water pouring out of the showerhead and down his back, the firm but very gentle sensation of his hand lightly cupping his entire genital region against the heat from the water, or the tension in his arm as his fingers worked to maintain their hold on the slippery wall.
For just a moment, everything was perfect. The sources of his pain were clear, and he felt safe with his body and his free hand protecting the only place where he would actually mind the pain from a burn. He felt invincible there, and also electric, because for just a moment, all of his senses were communicating together. Nothing was lagging. Nothing was bleeding into pain or into ghost-sensations in other senses. Moments like these, being so few and far-between, were more important and also more satisfying to Clay than anything, even sex.
His hand slipped against the wall. For a split second, as his weight shifted, Clay was certain that he was about to feel cold tile smacking into the back of his head. Then it was over—he was shaken, but his fingers had managed to grip the grout, and he was stable once again.
The moment was gone, though. Now, his free hand was on longer on himself, and he felt stiff in all his joints from standing in one position for too long. He shrugged it off and then reached for the handle to the faucet. It was time for him to shave and to get dressed for work.
As he stepped onto the bathmat, Clay shivered against the bracing air that wafted in from the two-inch crack where the bathroom's door had been left open to let out steam. For a second, that sensation, like the heat, seemed to bring all of his other feelings into alignment. Then it became too intense, rising in pitch until it was a biting pain and taking his composure with it.
He slammed the door.
The fact was that those moments, like the moment when he was holding himself in the shower, were the only way he could achieve a glimmer of sensory or sexual satisfaction. Noahleen had done what she promised. She had supported him and helped him to get ready for his accommodation meeting. She was good, too. She called attention to his behaviors when they were distracting and explained why they might distract another person, and she did not police his behaviors that were not distracting. It was a lot lower-pressure than Dr. Williams's approach.
It took a lot out of Noahleen to help him, though. Clay could see that. More than once, they had needed to stop working on things for the day because she was having too many muscle twitches to speak without tripping over herself. She started to cry then, and Clay had to reassure her that they had, in fact, done enough practicing for the day.
Neither of them had been interested in touching the other after. Most days were like this, too. The ones that were different were nice, but those days were often spent chatting on opposite sides of the apartment as they each did their own work.
That moment in the shower was the closest Clay had come to feeling sexual again since Noahleen's latest seizure cluster had started. He ached with the realization of it, but he would not have the chance to address that ache in the near term. He and Noahleen both had too much to do today.
* * *
Clay looked to his left, to Noahleen, as he waited for Dr. Brown and Dr. Kalkaska to arrive for their meeting. He also expected the university to send someone from human resources, but at this point, Clay did not know whether his expectations were realistic or not. This entire process had become hard for him to conceptualize and more drawn out than he ever would have thought.
After the mess that Dr. Williams had caused when she recused herself was resolved with the human resources people, they had wanted to offer him free counseling through the university's counseling services. That was all. When Clay had declined, they had tried to tell him that there would be no negotiation because he had declined the university's “reasonable accommodations.”
Noahleen had been livid when she found out about that. It had taken her two milligrams of lorazepam and a day of being left alone to think before she was even ready to talk about what they should do next. As it turned out, though, she used that time to think and to look up the actual Americans with Disabilities Act on the internet.
She wrote the letter demanding that the university consider actual changes to Clay's environment and to expectations like the dress code. In it, she accused them of trying to gain control over his private medical information. She also accused them of dictating Clay's medical options to him by refusing to discuss the matter unless he consented to a course of treatment that they had picked out.
Noahleen never once mentioned calling a lawyer or wanting to sue anyone, but something about the way she cited the relevant text from the actual law made Clay feel anxious when he signed the letter. Those words were supposed to be his, after all. If that letter had made things worse, he would not be able to blame Noahleen for it because he was the one who signed his name to her words.
Noahleen had known exactly how aggressive to be in the letter, though, because it had resulted in the Dr. Brown calling him in for a negotiation with the university. On the phone, Dr. Brown had mentioned that the graphic arts department was willing to make some changes on its own initiative, too, which had helped to moderate a good deal of Clay's anxiety.
Then they had started to practice. Every day. What Clay would say. What he wanted from the university. What he would settle with. Which of his behaviors were most distracting in small meetings. Which were not, and were safe for him if he felt anxious.
They also planned how they were going to get Noahleen into the room for the meeting.
Now they were here, and one way or another, this issue was going to be settled. Even if Dr. Brown was not able to make good on his promises, Clay would at least have the chance to state his needs out loud. He would be able to say that the university at least knew about him and about the challenges he faced. What that meant, he did not know, but he knew that it was important. Its meaning was important to... something.
He did not have words for what he was feeling. So instead, he looked at Noahleen. He was only here because she had helped him.
Guilt welled up inside him. All those months of trying to pull into himself, to be self-sufficient... The lying about his therapy, about how things were going at work...
She knew everything now. Even so, she had simply shrugged it off and helped him.
Noahleen noticed Clay watching her and she smiled. He smiled back. She reached under the table and held his hand. When he felt her fingers inside his own, Clay shivered.
Things were going to be okay. He needed to learn from his mistakes, but he did not need to keep punishing himself for them.
That was the important thing—that he not punish himself any more.
It was not long before Dr. Kalkaska and Dr. Brown joined them in the conference room. When they walked in, they both looked surprised to see Noahleen, but they also both knew who she was. Dr. Kalkaska politely inquired about her health, and Noahleen shrugged.
“I've been sitting in on his classes,” she said. “What does that tell you?”
Everyone nodded at that. None of them pushed the conversation further.
“Well, we do have some ideas that we hope you will be happy about,” Dr. Brown said. “Some things we can do in the department, even if we don't get any assistance from the university-wide administration. I would say we can talk about that, but we'll only wind up having to repeat it all once the university's representative gets here.”
Clay nodded. Noahleen nodded. Dr. Kalkaska looked bored.
So they sat quietly for a moment or two. Then, the arrival of the university's human resources person rescued them.
“My name is Gail,” she said as she took her seat. “And I know we have Dr. Kalkaska and Dr. Brown. You would be Clay, then,” she stuck her hand out as she said this.
Clay shook it.
“And who are you?” Gail said to Noahleen.
“Charmed,” Noahleen said, taking Gail's hand even though it was at her side. “I'm here with Clay.”
Gail shook her head. “This won't do. These kinds of meetings are supposed to be confidential. Unless you are Mr. Dillon's representative, you will have to wait outside.”
Clay froze. Dr. Brown frowned.
“No,” Noahleen said.
Gail's brow furrowed. “I'm sorry, but you aren't allowed to be here. You don't work for the university, and even if you did, these meetings are supposed to be confidential.”
Noahleen crossed her arms over her chest and sat back in her chair.
Clay felt like he should say something.
“I want her here,” he said. “I brought her.”
Gail shrugged. She looked at him, and she shrugged. She did not say anything, though.
“It seems to me,” Dr. Brown said, “that any confidentiality rules are in place to protect the privacy of Mr. Dillon during these proceedings.”
“So, if he has chosen to bring someone to the meeting, then he has consented to the university sharing information with that person. There is no confidentiality issue.”
“That's not how this works,” Gail said.
“Why not?” Dr. Brown shot back. “The only reason why the university would have any kind of interest in shutting a member of Mr. Dillon's family out of this meeting would be to protect its own privacy, not Mr. Dillon's.” He pointed his finger at Gail. “And I can promise you, even if you force her out of this room, that Mr. Dillon's family will find out exactly what happens here. They already know about your department's attempts to coerce him into compulsory therapy.”
Gail, from human resources, sat quietly. She did not nod, but she did not argue with Dr. Brown. Instead, she seemed to shrink a little.
Noahleen uncrossed her arms and sat forward in her seat.
“Good,” Dr. Brown said. “Let's get started.”
Noahleen did not talk during the negotiation. That was part of the plan. She was there to support Clay, and they had already practiced what he would say over and over. She had asked him questions about his needs that they had thought the university's rep—Gail—would ask. She did not need to speak for Clay to understand what her advice would be.
Also, she was still holding his hand under the table. When she did not like what she was hearing, she dug her nails into his palm. When she wanted him to agree to something, she tickled him. Otherwise, she just squeezed whenever he started to stutter.
Slowly, Clay managed to work his way through his entire script. He told them that he was not interested in involving the university in any of his decision-making about his therapy or health care, and that he was not asking for anything but a few adjustments to existing policies. The one material benefit he was asking for, an office that he could use exclusively, was explained as a necessity because of his need for transition time between activities.
He saw Dr. Kalkaska nodding as he explained that the shared office situation actually prevented him from accomplishing anything sometimes. He walked them through the process of attempting to move from orating to grading, narrating a timeline that showed that the need to vacate his office in order to make room for the next person was disruptive to an unnecessary degree and that it created an environment wherein he simply waited until he was allowed to go home, wasting hours each week, and then worked late into the evening doing the work that he should have done during the afternoon.
At one point, Dr. Brown did break in and state that, for many full-time faculty members, what Clay was describing was actually their ideal work environment. “If that's so, then that is good for them,” Clay replied, “but it is an unusual strain for me.”
Noahleen squeezed his hand. He looked at her, unsure why she was interrupting him.
She nodded. Slowly and carefully, but decisively, she nodded.
Clay then explained the need that they had for a more tranquil home environment and the particular demands of having to occasionally act as he caregiver for someone who had become temporarily incapacitated. As he outlined both the ways that the stressors worked to aggravate Noahleen's condition and the ways that Noahleen's condition interacted with his ability to concentrate and to achieve his goals, he started to feel lost. Eventually, his voice slipped, and that was when she stepped in.
“The fact of the matter,” Noahleen said, “is that Clay is only asking for three basic things. He is asking that the policies and deadlines of the department be laid out explicitly in any communication that is demanding input back from him, whether that input is in the form of written work or participation in an event. This is something that, really, we feel is just a good professional habit, but that the university as a whole—not just this department—has traditionally failed to live up to. He's also stating—not asking—that I will be present at any performance reviews or individual meetings with supervisors. This will help to manage his anxiety and it will give him someone that he can discuss the meetings with if he needs to discuss them out loud in order to fully process them. More importantly, it gives both you and him a third party who can act as a sort of translator if either of you is confusing the other. Lastly, he wants that office. We all know you don't want to give it to him, and we know why—if he gets his own office, then it opens the door for other part-time people to make demands, and you can't accommodate everyone.
“So here's the idea: give him another job. We all know that a full-time position is off the table. If you wanted him to teach full time, you would have hired him for it already. Fine. You could give him an administrative position, part time, that serves as a pretext for him to have his own office. You already know he will deliver precise work on a deadline. Clay could use the chance to make some extra income here so that he doesn't need to take so many online courses from other schools. Meet in the middle. Do you need a webmaster for the department? It would make sense for graphic arts, of all the departments at this school, to maintain its own unique look and feel, right?”
Noahleen looked to Clay. He nodded. They had planned this, but it still felt genuine. Clay was uneasy about letting her speak for him, but they had both agreed that they needed to show the university how these accommodations would work.
Gail nodded, but she pursed her lips and closed her eyes while she did it. Clay had no idea what that meant.
Before she could speak, Dr. Kalkaska spoke up.
“What about teaching? Are you claiming that Clay needs to have your—translation? I don't know what to call it. Are you claiming he needs you to attend his classes and help him present? Or to meet with students? Because there are real issues of confidentiality that need to be worked out. Legal issues.”
Clay shook his head.
“No,” Noahleen said. “Clay has no trouble with his teaching duties, in general. He has trouble navigating the transition from teaching and interacting with students to performing within the bureaucracy that comes with this job, and with transitioning out of work and into home life in the evening. We're not asking for anyone to hold his hand while he does his job. All we're asking for is help with the transition points and understanding about the fact that fielding demands from several departments that sometimes contradict each other is—pardon the language—it's fucking perplexing. It's frustrating enough when you aren't disabled and you haven't asked for anything special, but try doing it like we do it. Try asking for something simple, like the right to have a support person in a meeting, and being told that you have to submit to a mental health evaluation first.
“That was not only immoral and a violation of Clay's privacy, it was an avoidable barrier to his ability to function. There was no call for it. In fact, demanding it exposed the university to greater liability. So no, we're not asking that I be allowed to come in and do Clay's job, even though I'd be fully qualified to and I have worked in this field professionally before. No. We're demanding that I be allowed to observe your communications with him because your institution has a track record of breaking the law to violate its employees' rights.”
When Noahleen delivered that last sentence, she narrowed her gaze at Gail. Her eyes seemed to be tunneling into the other woman's face, and Gail frowned defensively.
“Fine,” Gail said. “Fine. I understand what you're really saying. If the department can't offer Clay an office, we'll find him something to do in the library or we'll make him a tutor at an outreach program or something. We're a big school. There's opportunity. Unless...” she waved at Dr. Brown, “unless you do want him to do something here in the department.”
Dr. Brown smiled the same kind of odd smile he had given Clay before, when he had driven Clay home from work. “I think we might, but let's see what you find for him first.”
Gail frowned at that, but Dr. Kalkaska nodded.
“The other things we can do,” Dr. Brown said.
Dr. Kalkaska nodded. “If you want your wife to be present at your evaluations, I don't see any reason to argue with you,” she said. “It won't change anything I have to say, but so far I've only had good things to say about your teaching. As far as I'm concerned, this meeting could have been handled as an internal department matter.” She cut her eyes at Gail. “It certainly would have been simpler if it had been.”
Clay could not find words to express his satisfaction. He smiled and nodded though, and he squeezed Noahleen's hand under the table.
“Good,” Gail said. “I'm glad that my role was ultimately unnecessary. I'll be in touch about that second part-time position.”
“Good,” Dr. Brown said. To Clay and Noahleen he added, “Please let me know what they find for you. I don't want this to slip through the cracks.”
“Thank you,” Noahleen said.
Gail excused herself.
Once she was gone and the door was closed, Dr. Brown leaned forward and rested his chin on his fist.
“So Clay becomes unvoiced? Or he just prefers to communicate differently?”
“I can talk,” Clay said. “But it has a cost, when I'm trying to think carefully and make choices, I can only do one or the other. Talk or think. It makes me upset, too, sometimes, and then I just try to talk my way into getting to leave the room, even if it means giving up on a negotiation that is very important to me.”
Dr. Brown nodded.
“That's what happened that day in your class, isn't it? When I was observing. You got confused and then you started typing the whole lecture into the overhead, showing the students what to do and commenting up your own code as you went.”
“That's not a bad way to teach,” Dr. Brown said. “I haven't seen it before, but it demonstrates how to read code comments by giving students a sense of the context under which they're created. Don't lose sight of that. You might tell yourself that it's a coping mechanism, and it might be, but it's also a very interesting approach to the material.”
At that, he stood up and left. Only Dr. Kalkaska remained with them.
“Clay, you know I've been your biggest supporter,” she said. “You have this job because I believe in your abilities. I never did understand why you couldn't find full-time work after you graduated—especially not with your history of successful freelance work. I get it now, and I'm sorry. I can't help thinking that if we did more with professional development—“
“Don't.” Clay's voice came out hoarse. “Don't. I am grateful for all the opportunity I've had, and I've had other challenges besides my disability. I don't want to talk about them, but I will say this: Don't go thinking you could have prevented this. My inability to understand my own strengths and weaknesses was holding me back, and it was because of things that happened long before we met. You have been nothing but supportive.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I don't know what else to say.”
Then Dr. Kalkaska left the room, and it was just him and Noahleen.
Noahleen hugged him. “We won.”
Clay felt tears running down his cheeks. He hugged her back.
“It wasn't that much of a fight,” he said. “That woman from human resources seemed to know that they'd fucked up hard.”
“That she did,” Noahleen said.