Marie diligently stayed out of the library for the next few days, but by Thursday, she was desperate. She had papers to write and she couldn’t do them without a trip to Caldwell. She researched if there were any other libraries in the area, but the closest half-decent one was a bus and a train ride, followed by a twenty minute walk away. It wasn’t realistic for her not to go to Caldwell anymore.
She called the library to find out when Sam would be working, hoping she could at least manage to avoid him. She had at least another six years of grad school ahead of her, so it would be no easy task to avoid Sam entirely.
She was told that he wouldn’t be working on Thursday evening, but the moment she went through the doors, she saw him sitting at the counter. He looked bored, as usual, and seeing him almost made her burst into tears. She tried to maintain her composure, but by the time she walked by his desk, her cheeks were wet with saltwater. She did her best to dab them with the backs of her sleeves.
“Hi,” she whispered.
He stared at her. “What are you crying for?”
His question only made her cry harder. He had a good point—she was the one who had ended it with him. She could have overlooked the disastrous evening with her parents. She could have given him another chance. But she didn’t.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t tell me you’re sorry,” he snapped. A red-haired girl approached the counter with a stack of books, but did a quick about-face when she heard their conversation. “You’re not crying because you miss me. You’re crying because you feel guilty. You feel sorry for me.”
Marie tried to shake her head no, but she realized he was right. She knew how much their relationship had meant to him and she knew what she had done had crushed him. As much as she had adored him, she realized that the relationship had meant more to him than it did to her. And ultimately, that had been the reason she had decided to end it.
Sam looked into her eyes. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me,” he said. “I really hate it when you look at me that way.”
She bit her lip, “I… I’m just going to go.”
She turned to leave the library, but she suddenly felt a rough hand on her wrist. She looked over and saw that Sam had grabbed her to keep her from leaving. “Don’t go,” he said. “Go get your books.”
Marie blinked. “What?”
“You obviously didn’t think I would be here now,” he noted. “You came to get some books. So go get them.”
“I don’t want to… upset you.”
“Please, Marie,” he sighed. “What good does it do me if you flunk out of school too? Get the books you need.”
Their eyes met and Marie decided that she never loved Sam quite as much as she did at that moment. And at the same time, she knew that she had made the right decision to move on and to allow him to move on.
Sam bought a bottle of wine as sort of peace offering for his brother. He felt bad about the last conversation he had with Ben. When the Ziegler boys were young, they had been so close. And Sam, as the older of the boys, had always looked out for his younger brother. It was a blow to Sam that he was the one who needed to be looked out for now.
Sam’s father picked him up and they arrived at six on the dot. As Sam’s father got his wheelchair out of the trunk, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of anxiety. Ben wasn’t one to hold a grudge, but he was worried there would still be hard feelings. And he still didn’t want the responsibility of being Ben’s best man.
Sam wheeled up the ramp to the front door, which his parents had installed five years ago. As the door opened, he couldn’t help but recall bitter memories of when he had first come home from rehab and believed he would live in this house for the rest of his life. He remembered how his mother had given him a tour of the house, with the excuse that she had changed things so that he could live on the first floor, although Sam knew she was mainly giving the tour because she thought he couldn’t remember what the house looked like, despite having lived there for the first eighteen years of his life. And the truth was, she was right.
The smell of roast chicken filled his nostrils and he heard his stomach growl slightly. He wheeled over the carpet in the foyer and into the living room, where Ben was sitting on the couch was his fiancé Elise. Sam had met Elise a few times before and once again he was struck by how pretty she was, with a trim figure and long reddish blonde hair that curled around her shoulders.
Elise was first to jump off the couch. She ran over to Sam and gave him a hug, which might have been awkward if it wasn’t so heartfelt. “Sam, it’s so good to see you!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe you’re going to be my brother in six months!”
As Elise pulled away, she was beaming at him. “It’s good to see you too,” Sam said. “Congratulations.”
Sam looked over at Ben, who was still sitting quietly on the couch, but there was an amused smile on his lips. “Hey, Sam.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, broken by their mother walking into the living room, wiping her hands on her apron. “Okay, boys. Time for dinner.”
Annette made certain that her two sons were sitting next to each other at the dinner table. She brought the chicken to the table and the first thing she did was cut a piece for Sam. She took his plate and started to cut off slices of chicken for him. The implication, of course, was that she didn’t think he was capable of cutting his own meat, even just some chicken. He couldn’t help but turn slightly red.
“Mom,” Sam said, grabbing the plate to pull it away from her. “You don’t need to do this. I can’t handle it.”
“It’s no bother,” Annette said brightly.
“Jesus Annette, he can cut his own meat,” Sam’s father said.
She reluctantly released the plate. Truth be told, with a T1 spinal cord injury, Sam’s dexterity wasn’t as good as it used to be. He dropped things more than he used to and his handwriting was noticeably different than prior to his accident. But he could handle cutting up a piece of chicken, for sure.
Throughout the meal, Elise and Annette chattered brightly about the wedding. Mostly about the food, the dresses, the flowers--stuff the men hadn’t the slightest interest in. Sam noticed that about halfway through the meal, their father asked Ben about some of the math research he was doing. Within a minute, they were involved in an animated discussion about theoretical math. Sam could tell it was the kind of discussion he might have jumped into five years ago, but now he couldn’t understand a word they were saying.
“No math at the dinner table!” Annette spoke up.
That had been a rule for the last fifteen years, initially imposed to keep Sam and his father (then later, Ben) from dominating the discussion. It was always said jokingly though, and she never really stopped them. But after Sam’s injury, Annette noticed the frustration he felt during these discussions, and started strictly enforcing this rule. He had to admit, he was grateful.
“I’m sorry, we’re being rude,” Ben said earnestly. He turned to Sam, “How is that girl you’re dating? Mom said things were pretty serious.”
Sam stared down at his plate. “Yeah, we… uh, we broke up.”
Ben blushed. “Oh crap, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he shrugged. He hated the pity on his brother’s face. “It’s not that big a deal.”
“Actually, if you’re single, Elise has this friend…”
“Oh my god, Sam, you’d love her!” Elise gushed. “You have to let me set you up. She’s really pretty and so nice. She’s perfect for you.”
“Uh, I don’t know…”
“Oh, come on,” Elise said. “The best way to forget a girl is another girl who’s better looking, right?”
Ben laughed, “Hey, that’s what I’m supposed to say!”
“So can I give her your number?” Elise asked, raising her eyebrows.
Sam wanted to ask if her friend knew that he was in a wheelchair. He was tempted to tell her no, but then he remembered Richard’s words: You’re actually a good looking guy. If you stopped being such a whiny bitch, you probably wouldn’t have any trouble meeting girls.
“Okay, sure,” Sam said. “What the hell.”
After the meal was over, the women insisted on putting away the dishes while Sam and Ben retired to the living room. Sam knew this was part of his mother’s plot to get the two brothers to make nice and he could tell Ben knew it too. “I wish Elise were so insistent on doing the dishes at home,” Ben commented.
Sam smiled, “She’s a really great girl, Ben. You’re very lucky.”
Ben got a very serious look on his face. “Sam,” he said. “I want to apologize for what I said the other day. I was out of line.”
“No,” Sam said thoughtfully, “you were right about a lot of things. I mean, I am jealous. But I also want you to be happy.”
“And I still want you to be my best man.”
“Look, this is important to me,” Ben said. “Before I even met Elise, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to get married with my big brother right next to me. I need you there.”
His mother had told him that when she had broken the news to Ben that his older brother was badly hurt, he had been inconsolable. Even though he was in his first year of graduate school, Ben spent every minute of his free time at the hospital. “Ben, I want to, but…”
“We can do it any way you want,” Ben insisted. “You don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to make a toast, but I want you next to me when I get married. This is important to me. Please, Sam.”
He realized that Ben wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He supposed it was flattering. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
To Sam’s surprise, his younger brother’s eyes welled up with tears. “Thanks, man,” he said. He managed an embarrassed smiled, “I’m sorry… I just… I kind of felt like things haven’t been the same between us since you got hurt. Like you hated me or something.”
“Of course not,” Sam insisted. As he said it, he knew it was the truth. Despite the resentment he sometimes felt, he could never hate Ben. Never.
“I mean, you’re my big brother,” Ben said. “It was so hard to see you so badly injured. But now it kind of feels like for the first time… you’re back. You know?”
Sam knew exactly what he meant. Despite the way things had gone sour with Marie, she had changed him. She made him realize that he was still a man, that his life wasn’t gone just because he was no longer able-bodied. Or because he couldn’t be a physicist. He could still be happy just the way he was.
And even if he never saw Marie again, he was eternally grateful to her for giving him that.
To be continued...