Sam couldn’t clear his head of the shocked look on Marie’s face when she saw him in his wheelchair. He could clearly see how flustered she was and she didn’t say a word to him after he let her check out that book. It made him feel like a freak. If she ever had any slight interest in him, she certainly didn’t anymore. Of course, he probably had blown it when he cut her library card in half.
If he was honest with himself, Sam had thought Marie was attractive from the first day he met her, but he didn’t realize how much he was into her until he saw her dismayed reaction to his wheelchair. In the back of his mind, maybe he’d been hoping she’d be okay with it. He had tried to keep his disability a secret from her as long as possible, because he was dreading that look on her face.
He tried to block out the realization that he was almost thirty and he had nobody. He had always just assumed he’d find someone and get married by his age. He had never been a ladies man by any stretch of the imagination, but it had never seemed like meeting girls was a big deal until he ended up in the wheelchair and dating became so much harder. He had always been somewhat nervous around girls and now he felt like the opposite sex was completely unapproachable. He saw dozens of couples in the library and with every passing day, he hated them a little bit more.
Thanks to coming in early, Sam managed to take off early to go home. There was a shuttle from the library that took him within wheeling distance of his apartment, which worked out well since he didn’t trust himself to drive. His reflexes were nowhere close to what they used to be and it was hard for him to think quickly. He didn’t even attempt to get his drivers license back after it was revoked due to his injury.
His “apartment” was a little place off the side of a house owned by an elderly couple. It was not the most wheelchair accessible place in the world, meaning it sometimes took him several tries to be able to squeeze his chair through the bathroom door, but it was good enough. And it was cheap and quiet and close to work. His landlord and landlady never bothered him, except for an occasional sympathetic look when they passed him in the driveway.
Sam wasn’t surprised to see his mother waiting for him in the apartment, folding his laundry. She stopped by at least three or four times a week since he had moved out of his parents’ house two years ago. She did his laundry, cleaned, cooked him meals, and paid his bills. Sam had turned over all his finances to his parents because he just couldn’t figure out the bills anymore. She also brought him his medications from the pharmacy and checked his pill bottles to make sure he was taking everything.
He would have certainly found his mother’s presence an intrusion way back when, but now he was grateful to her. There were a lot of things he couldn’t do anymore and he wasn’t sure what he would have done without her help. At the very least, he was grateful that he was a lot more independent than in the year after his injury. When he was in rehab, he needed help from his mother with everything, from dressing to bathing to his bladder and bowel program. He couldn’t even tie his own shoes back then. At his discharge to his parents’ home from rehab, he had overheard the doctor on the unit telling his parents that he would likely never be able to live on his own. Thank god things got better for him.
“Hello, darling,” his mother said. “How was work today?”
His mother put down the shirt she was folding and looked very serious for a moment, “Sam, there’s something I have to tell you.”
“Yeah?” He didn’t like the sound of this.
“Ben got engaged.”
Ben was Sam’s younger brother. Younger by three years. Ben had gone to graduate school in math, like their father, and had recently earned his PhD. He had been dating a surprisingly pretty girl for the last two years, and it had been obvious the last time they had seen each other that the relationship was pretty serious. So it wasn’t a big surprise. Yet…
The news made Sam feel like crying. His younger brother had everything he had wanted. He got a great post-doc at an amazing university and now he was marrying a beautiful girl. Sam had no chance of either of these things. He was lucky he was even able to live on his own. He was never going to find a girlfriend. The concept that a girl could be interested seemed more ridiculous to him each day. Once again, he had a flashback to the look on Marie’s face when she saw his wheelchair.
“Sam, honey…” his mother was touching his shoulder.
“I’m okay,” Sam said. She didn’t look like she believed him. “Really.”
“I swear to you, you’ll find a girlfriend again someday,” she said. “Come on, you’re a great catch.”
He laughed at that. “Okay, Mom. Whatever you say.”
“And you’ve always got your mom and dad,” she reminded him.
“Yeah…” Except he wasn’t going to have his parents forever. Sometimes he wondered what he was going to do after they were gone. Who would pay his bills for him?
“Also,” she added, “Ben is going to ask you to be his best man.”
Sam’s eyes widened. “No. Tell him no.” He didn’t want that kind of responsibility. It was going to be awkward enough to be the center of attention with his wheelchair, but he was certain he’d manage to screw things up somehow. He didn’t want the guests whispering about Ben’s crippled and retarded older brother. He’d go to the wedding, but he didn’t want to participate.
“You have to tell him yourself,” his mother said. “He’s going to be disappointed. You boys are so close.”
We used to be close. Sam remembered how he, Ben, and their father used to sit around and talk math or physics or philosophy for hours on end. Now when they were together, Ben and his dad would have the same conversation while Sam would just sit there in his wheelchair, frustrated that he couldn’t begin to understand what they were talking about anymore.
Sam felt the tears rising in his eyes, but he didn’t allow them to come. He didn’t want his mother to see him break down. She didn’t deserve that.
Marie was furiously taking notes on the textbook, while glancing at her watch every fifteen minutes or so. She knew this reference book couldn’t be checked out of the library, but the paper for Dr. Mitchell’s class was due tomorrow and she needed to get through another several chapters. The library was only open until nine, so she knew she had precious little time.
She was nearly the only person left in the library when she heard Sam’s voice over the loudspeaker: “The library closes in ten minutes.”
She didn’t budge. She continued to read as quickly as she could, but she knew it was futile. After ten minutes had passed, Sam called over to her, “Library’s closing, Marie.”
She sighed and picked up the heavy text, her arms trembling with the effort. She slammed it down on the counter in front of Sam. “Uh, is there any way I can check this out for the night?”
He glanced at it, “Can’t check out reference books.”
“Oh, please?” Marie begged. “I’ll bring it back first thing tomorrow morning! I promise!”
“There isn’t even a bar code for me to scan,” he said. “This book is un-checkoutable.”
“There’s this paper—”
“There’s always a paper, isn’t there?”
Marie closed her eyes. She knew there was nothing she could say to get Sam to let her check out this book. If only she was Anise. She was sure Anise would be able to convince him, no matter how stubborn he was.
Sam fingered the book with his rough fingers, “How much longer do you need?”
“An hour maybe?”
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’m got some shit to do around the library. I’ll let you stay here just this one time so you can finish your notes. You’ve got one hour.”
Marie could have hugged him. Instead she got back to her note-taking, aware that she was on the clock.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sam wheeling in her general direction with a stack of books on his lap. She noticed that as he came closer to the tables and chairs, he used them to propel himself forward, rather than using his arms. As much as she knew she needed to study, she found Sam’s presence to be a distraction.
He wheeled himself over to one of the shelves and began filing away the books. She watched his strong biceps flex as he pushed the books into their proper places. “You do this every night?” she asked him.
“Me or Dean, yeah,” he said. “Usually me.”
“I saw your photo in the physics department,” Marie blurted out. She cursed to herself as soon as she said the words. She didn’t want to seem like some sort of weird stalker. She didn’t want him to have any idea how much she had been thinking about him this weekend.
“Oh,” he said. He looked away from her. “Yeah, I, uh… I used to be a grad student there. A while back.”
“Something like that,” he muttered.
It was clear that he didn’t want to talk about his career prior to working in the library, even though Marie was desperately curious to find out how he ended up here. He was so close-lipped. She realized these were practically the most words they had ever exchanged. At least he wasn’t being a jerk to her anymore.
“So English poetry, huh?” he said with a grin. “Christ, what a waste.”
Ordinarily, Marie would have been insulted. “Unlike physics?”
“Physics isn’t a waste. Physicists do important stuff.”
“Like build atom bombs?” Marie shook her head. “At least poems don’t kill people.”
Sam laughed. It was the first time she had ever heard him laugh and she found that she liked the sound of it. She got the feeling he didn’t laugh much. “You’re something else, Marie,” he said. Their eyes met for a split second and Marie felt a tingle go through her entire body.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” She watched as he pushed a book onto a shelf that she would have believed would be out of reach for him. “Do you, uh… need any help?”
He shook his head, “No, I amazingly do this every night without you here.”
She blushed, “Sorry…”
Sam shrugged. The moment between them had passed and she was back to just being an annoying library patron. It seemed like she was never going to get to know him.
Why do you care? Marie asked herself.
That was a good question. From the moment she first met Sam, he had been consistently rude to her. Yet ever since she saw him in that wheelchair, she found herself growing more and more curious about him. If she didn’t know better, she’d think she was falling for him.
Sam’s adult education class met every Wednesday night at seven o’clock. It met in the university’s annex, a short shuttle ride away from the Caldwell Library. There were about fifteen students in the class, almost exclusively young men. Sam supposed young men were the most likely candidates to get their heads bashed in.
The class focused on developing compensation techniques. For example, coming up with tricks to compensate for the fact that their memory wasn’t what it used to be. For Sam, he had been struggling to tally up even simple late fees at the library until the teacher made some suggestions, including make a written list of the most common fees and keeping a small calculator on his desk.
Some students in the class had trouble with their speech. Several of them had aphasia, where they struggled to come up with the right words. In this situation, they were taught to instead describe the function of the word they were searching for. Thankfully, this was not as much of a problem for Sam as for some of the other students. He still remembered having trouble coming up with words back when he was first injured and he remembered how frustrating it had been. Now it happened only very rarely, when he was under a lot of stress.
A few of the other students in the class had mobility issues, either due to fractures, nerve damage, or the brain injury itself, although Sam was one of only two students who couldn’t walk at all and required a wheelchair full time. The other wheelchair-user was a guy in his early thirties named Richard, who was a hemiplegic from car accident, meaning he couldn’t move the right side of his body. He used a bulky powerchair that he controlled with his left hand, whereas Sam used a nondescript manual chair.
As the only two people in the class who used wheelchairs, Sam and Richard naturally gravitated to each other. Richard was admittedly worse in the brain injury department; while Sam agonized over whether people could recognize the deficiencies in his speech, it was quite obvious that Richard had a brain injury. His speech was slowed and somewhat slurred, and he had difficulty with coordination even on his good side. Sam had been able to move out of his parents’ house and live independently, but Richard couldn’t. Still, they had more in common than a lot of other people in the class.
“How’s life?” Richard asked Sam, when he arrived five minutes before the class was to start. Sam guessed Richard had arrived at least ten minutes ago, since his mother was already gone.
“Same old shit,” Sam sighed. “I swear, I’m this close to coming in to work with a shotgun.”
Richard laughed. “That bad?”
“I don’t know.” He sighed again. “Honestly, I think I could tolerate the job a lot better if I had some kind of social life. And by that, I mean… a date every once in a blue moon.”
“Yeah, I hear that,” Richard replied. They had discussed the girl situation before at length. It was comforting for Sam to talk to another guy who was just as frustrated as he was.
Sam glanced around the slowly filling classroom. “Nobody else here has this problem,” he said. “I’m sure of it. Even the guys who can barely get out a sentence. Wheelchairs are like girl repellent. When they see the chair, it’s like… you become asexual to them.”
Richard nodded. “I know what you mean. I don’t think I’ve had a woman talk to me in a way that didn’t sound like she was talking to a five year old child.”
“I guess we shouldn’t obsess about it,” Sam acknowledged. “We should just… accept that it isn’t going to ever happen. Getting my hopes up just makes things worse, you know?”
Richard raised his eyebrows, “Someone you have in mind, Sam?”
“Sort of…” Sam turned slightly pink. “Just this girl who comes into the library a lot. But you should have seen the look on her face when she realized I was paralyzed. It’s obvious that it makes her really uncomfortable.”
“That’s too bad,” Richard said. “I’ve yet to even meet a woman who could reject me.”
“Well, she didn’t exactly reject me,” Sam amended. “I mean, she would if I asked her. I’m sure of it.”
Was he? When Marie had stayed late at the library the other night, for a moment he thought they had a bit of a connection. Just a fleeting moment, but there was something. They were joking around together and she was looking at him like maybe…
Sam shook his head to clear it. No, there was no chance that Marie was interested in him. As he had said to Richard, he needed to stop getting his hopes up. It was just going to lead to disappointment.
To be continued...