Marie spent nearly an hour trying on outfits in front of the full length mirror in her bedroom before she finally settled on a dark blue blouse with a black skirt. She had so many pieces of clothing in dark colors that Anise had started teasing her that she was always prepared for a funeral. But this was her first date since starting grad school and she wanted to look halfway decent. Dark colors were slimming.
Anise caught her checking out her profile in the blouse and skirt and Marie could see her roommate putting things together: “Oh my god, you have a date!”
“Um, yeah,” Marie admitted.
“Who’s the lucky guy??”
“It’s Sam,” Marie said. “The guy from the library.”
Anise squealed so loudly that Marie jumped. “Oh, that’s so wonderful! You were totally into him!”
“Yeah…” Marie was fairly certain that Anise didn’t know about Sam’s disability and she hesitated to tell him. Anise was so proud of her and Marie wasn’t sure if she would be if she found out the truth. Anise was superficial, if nothing else.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” Anise asked.
Anise crinkled her nose, “Well, okay… if that’s what you want…”
Marie had no doubt in her mind that Anise could pick out an incredible outfit for herself, but Marie knew her own body better than anyone and she knew what looked good on her. She couldn’t get away with the same skintight jeans that Anise wore. She’d never be able to look like her roommate, but she knew how to achieve a level of maximum attractiveness for herself.
Sam and Marie had agreed to meet at the restaurant, and Marie was pleased to see Sam already waiting for her when she arrived. Her first thought was that he cleaned up real good. He was dressed in a button-up blue shirt and khaki slacks that were a step above anything she had ever seen him wearing at the library. It was clear he was trying hard to make a good impression on her and she felt touched.
“Marie!” His eyes lit up when he saw her. “You came!”
“Of course I came,” Marie said, shaking her head. What an odd thing to say.
“No, I mean…” he smoothed his pants legs out with his hands. “I mean… I’m glad to see you.”
“Me too,” Marie said.
Sam’s face turned a little red. She remembered how calm and collected he seemed when he was working in the library and this was a stark contrast. She had never seen him so nervous. It made her nervousness seem less, in comparison.
He wheeled over to the hostess and spoke up, “I have a reservation for two under Ziegler.”
The hostess looked down at Sam and cleared her throat, “Oh, you didn’t mention in your reservation that you needed… accommodations.”
“No accommodations,” Sam said quickly. “Any table is fine.”
“Well, the table we reserved for you is upstairs.”
“Oh…” Sam turned a little red. “Do you have an elevator?”
“Just a service elevator.”
Sam rubbed his knees. “I… I didn’t know there was an upstairs.”
“It’s okay, we can wait for a table down here,” Marie spoke up.
The hostess nodded, “I’m sorry. We’ll do what we can.”
After about five minutes of waiting in awkward silence, the hostess led them to a table near the entrance. There was a single step to get into the main part of the restaurant and Marie watched as Sam did a quick wheelie to get over it. The hostess pulled away one of the chairs from their table so that he could pull his wheelchair under the table.
They both buried themselves in the menu and Marie was starting to feel anxious that once their orders were taken, there would be nothing to talk about. Really, she knew nothing about Sam, other than the fact that he worked in the library and he had once been a physics graduate student, the latter of which was off limits for discussion.
“Have you ever eaten here before?” Marie asked to make conversation, even though it was clear he hadn’t.
“No, I… not really,” he mumbled. “I mainly just eat stuff that goes in the microwave, to be honest.”
Marie laughed. “Me too.”
Sam grinned, encouraged by her laughter. “I’m glad we decided to do this.”
He looked like he meant it. Marie had been on several dates where the guy looked like he would rather have been somewhere else, but it was clear that from the way Sam was looking at her that he was overjoyed just to be here with her. It was flattering. Clearly, this date meant a lot to him. She guessed he was telling the truth when he said he didn’t get out much.
“So tell me about your eyes,” Marie said.
He raised his brows, “My eyes?”
“Anise was gushing about the slanted eyes,” Marie admitted. “You’re part Asian?”
“Oh,” Sam laughed. “Yeah, my grandmother is Japanese. My father’s father met her when he was stationed overseas in World War 2. I’m impressed… most people can’t tell, I don’t think. Everyone just thinks I’m a white guy.”
“I can definitely tell,” Marie said. “It’s nice. Exotic.”
“Oh yeah?” He smiled crookedly.
Marie was suddenly seized by the urge to kiss him, but she was scared it was too soon. Instead, she reached out and gently placed her hand on his. Sam looked down at her hand then up at her face and she nearly melted when she saw the smile on his face.
She had to watch her step, otherwise she was going to be head over heels in love with Sam Ziegler by the end of the night.
Sam was surprised and relieved to find that things came easier with Marie than he had expected. He had been terrified that his nervousness was going to break down his compensation techniques, but somehow she managed to put him at ease. And to his amazement, she seemed to like him back.
Still, it was rough concentrating on talking to Marie with all the noise of the restaurant. He had to keep reminding himself to do his weight shifts every fifteen minutes because he knew that it was in this kind of situation that he was likely to forget. At two separate points while Marie was talking, his leg started jumping up and down in a spasm, and he tried to remember if he had taken his baclofen the night before. He had so much trouble remembering to take his pills.
Just as their main courses arrived at the table, Sam’s watch started beeping. Marie raised her eyebrows at him, “Time to go home?”
He tried to laugh, but it came out strangled. His watched beeped every four hours as a reminder to catheterize his bladder. He had no sensation of bladder fullness and without regular emptying, his bladder could become over-distended and possibly leak. He hated the fact that he couldn’t even do a basic activity like going to the bathroom without medical equipment.
“What’s the alarm for?” Marie asked him.
“Um,” was the best Sam could come up with. There was no way to explain this to her. No good way, that is. He guessed if they were together long enough, he was going to have to share his bathroom routine with her, but definitely not on the first date. Of course, he had to obey the watch and empty his bladder now, or else he risked forgetting and wetting his pants later. This was especially an issue, considering he wasn’t certain he remembered to take Ditropan, his bladder medication, last night. He was not going to take any risk of wetting his pants. That would not be a good first date impression.
Finally, he said, “I’ll be right back.” He left her to draw whatever conclusions she wanted from that statement.
Sam was relieved that the handicapped stall was empty so that he didn’t have to wait. He wheeled himself inside and closed the door. He kept catheters in a bag attached to the back of his chair, which were designed to remain sterile without requiring sterile gloves. He opened his zipper and pulled out his penis, inserting the catheter tip into his urethra with practiced swiftness. He pushed past the brief resistance and watched the urine empty into the attached bag. He couldn’t believe he had been doing this for five years now. He couldn’t even remember what the sensation of having to pee felt like.
After he came out of the bathroom, Sam spent a minute looking himself over in the full length mirror hung by the door. Marie acted interested in him, but when he looked at his own reflection, he just didn’t see how. Between his thin, motionless legs, his gut, and the way he slumped forward slightly in his chair due to his lack of abdominal muscles, he found it impossible to believe that any woman could be even slightly attracted to him. He looked like what he was—a cripple.
As he wheeled back to his table, he tried to push these thoughts out of his mind. She had accepted his dinner invitation, so clearly she had to like him at least a little. Unless she just came because she felt sorry for him. He tried not to think about it.
“I waited for you,” Marie told him, gesturing at their now cold food.
“Aw, I didn’t know you were going to do that,” he said, surprised. “I would have told you to eat.”
Marie shrugged and reached out to give his hand another squeeze. When she touched him, the parts of his body that he could still feel tingled like crazy. He wondered if she had any idea what kind of impact she had on him.
When the check arrived, Sam immediately grabbed it with his calloused hand. “We should split it,” Marie said.
“No way,” Sam insisted. “You’re a poor grad student.”
“And you’re a library tycoon?”
She tried to reach for it, but he held it out of her reach. Finally, she smiled, “Well, okay.”
Sam opened the check and looked down at it. She watched him bite his lip and furrow his brow. He picked up the pen the waiter had provided for him and held it in his hand, poised to write.
“What’s wrong?” Marie asked. “Did they add it up wrong?”
“No, I…” He looked up at her then back down at the check. “It’s just…”
Marie didn’t know what to say. “Do… do you need help?”
Finally, Sam nodded, defeated. He pushed the check across the table to her. “If you could just calculate the tip and add it up…”
Marie calculated a 20% tip, added up the total and pushed the check back across the table to him. Sam looked down at the figure and started counting out money. He didn’t raise his eyes to meet hers and she could see his face was very red.
“I should explain,” he said quietly, after the waiter had collected the money.
“It’s okay,” Marie said. She remembered what Dean had told her, about how Sam flunked out of school after his accident. She guessed this was related.
Sam lowered his head and parted his shaggy hair to reveal a thick scar on his skull. “I had a brain injury too,” he said. “They had to cut my skull open to remove the blood. After the accident, I even had trouble speaking for a while, but that all came back. And my memory isn’t great, but I can get by. But the math… that never came back. I can’t do anything beyond very simple arithmetic like two plus two, which is why I had to quit my PhD program.” He sighed. “I think that hurt worse than not being able to walk.”
“You seemed to be able to tell me pretty quick how much money I owed for those wet books,” Marie pointed out, trying to make a joke.
Sam snickered. “Yeah, well… believe it or not, that kind of thing happens a lot, so I’ve got the numbers memorized. Three books is fifteen dollars, four is twenty, five is twenty-five bucks. I memorized the late fees too. I’ve got all the numbers written down in case I forget and a calculator under the desk.”
“I never would have guessed.”
“Seriously?” Sam shook his head. “I always feel like it must be obvious to everyone.”
“No, pretty much everyone just thinks you’re a jerk.”
Sam lowered his eyes, “I’m sorry about that. I just… I hate my fucking job. I mean, it’s not a terrible job, but it’s not exactly what I thought I’d be doing at this point in my life. Not even close.”
“Why don’t you quit?”
“And do what?” he snorted. “I couldn’t even work the cash register at Wendy’s. This is pretty much the only desk job that doesn’t involve any thinking whatsoever.”
“Maybe you could try for the physics degree again?” she suggested.
He stared at her. “Are you joking? I couldn’t even add up the check just now. How could I possibly earn a graduate degree in physics?”
As much as Marie felt a need to help him, she had to admit he was probably right. It did sound like the library job was probably the best work he’d be able to find with his physical and mental limitations.
“Look, I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said. “Okay?”
“Can I escort you back to your dorm?” he asked.
“Definitely,” Marie said.
He smiled for the first time since the check had arrived. Marie collected her purse and they headed out the door. They were about three quarters through the short walk back to her dorm room when it suddenly occurred to her that there were five steps to enter the building. She guessed that there was no way he was going to be able to get up that many steps. Before she could think of a way to tell him, they were right in front of the dorm.
“This is where you live?” Sam eyed the steps. “Great.”
Marie blushed. She didn’t know what to say.
“I guess we’ll call it a night then, huh?” he said.
Marie sat down on the second step and folded her arms across her chest. “If that’s what you want,” she said, her voice dripping with suggestion.
He narrowed his eyes at her. His hands were still on the wheels of his chair, ready to take off. But she could tell from his face that he was thinking about kissing her. He was always a little hunched forward due to his lack of abdominal muscles, so she leaned forward too, waiting. Finally, he said, “I can’t.”
“I mean,” he took a breath. “I feel so stupid. I don’t know what you’re doing here. You can’t possibly think that I’m… you know…”
“That you’re what?”
He rubbed his knees. “It’s just… I feel like you’re only here because… maybe you feel like you’re giving me a break or something. I mean, it’s nice of you, but I know you can’t possibly be…” She waited for him to finish. “…into me.” He lowered his eyes, looking down at his legs, “God, I feel like an idiot even saying it.”
He’s never going to kiss me, Marie realized. She was going to have to make the first move, something she had never done before in her life.
She scooted forward on the step and grabbed his face in her hands to pull him closer to her, until his lips were an inch away from his. Then she bridged the distance. He stiffened at first, but then she felt him relax. Start to get into it. She felt him draw her closer, almost hungrily, and she realized how long it must have been for him since he’d been close to a woman.
When they parted, she noticed he was practically beaming. He grinned at her and blushed, “Hey.”
Marie laughed. “Hey, yourself.”
“Can I call you?”
“I’m sure I’ll see you at the library before you can get to a phone.”
She rested her hand on his knee and he took it in his and held it for a second. She badly wished that the steps weren’t there and that she could invite Sam upstairs, but maybe it was better this way. From what she could tell, he needed to take things slow.
After that kiss with Marie, Sam nearly floated home. He had just been hoping to make it through the evening without humiliating himself—he hadn’t dared to hope she’d kiss him. For the first time in a long time, he was feeling good about himself.
He arrived home at around ten and was surprised to find that he had company: his younger brother was lying asleep in his couch. Sam wracked his brain, trying to remember if he had locked the door before he left to see Marie. He was sure he had. So how had Ben gotten inside?
Ben startled and woke up at the sound of the door slamming shut. He sat up on the couch and grinned sleepily, “Oh hey, Sam.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Mom gave me a copy of your key,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d be back so late. Did you get stuck at work?”
“No, I had a date,” Sam said through his teeth.
“A date?” Sam resented the shocked look on his brother’s face. “Oh. Oh, wow. That’s awesome, Sammy. Really. Good for you.” I should have done a math degree like Ben, Sam thought. There are never any explosions in the math department.
“What do you want, Ben?” he sighed.
Ben clasped his hands together. Ben had the same slightly slanted eyes, straight brown hair, and lanky build as Sam did, and people used to frequently mistake them for twins. Since Sam had been using the wheelchair, nobody had made that mistake. “Mom says you don’t want to be my best man.”
“Sam, you’re my best friend,” Ben pleaded. “I can’t imagine anyone else being my best man.”
“If I were your best friend, you wouldn’t ask me to do this.”
Ben shook his head. “What are you worried about?”
“Take a wild guess.”
“Nobody cares that you’re in a wheelchair,” Ben said.
Sam thought it was a patronizing thing to say and furthermore, it wasn’t true. If he was up there at the altar, everyone in the room was going to be staring at him, feeling sorry for him, watching to see if he’d screw up. “I can’t focus under that kind of pressure,” Sam said. “I’m going to fuck up your ceremony.”
“That’s ridiculous, Sam.”
“What the hell is the difference?” Sam muttered. “I mean, you’ve got a great girl, a great job. Why do you need me to do this?”
Ben was staring at him. “Are you jealous?”
“No, I’m not jealous,” Sam snorted. “Why do you think I’m jealous? Because I can’t walk and the only job I can do anymore is something a trained monkey could do?”
“No, I’m really happy with my life right now,” Sam went on. “Can’t you tell? It’s so great that I have to take a high dose anti-depressant just to get through the day.”
That shut Ben up, at least temporarily. The truth was, when Sam looked at his younger brother, he felt more than jealousy. He felt a deep resentment, bordering on hatred. Ben had everything he had wanted, and now he was whining that Sam wouldn’t sit there and revel in his glory. They weren’t best friends anymore, not by a long shot.
“You can’t blame anyone but yourself,” Ben finally said. Sam blinked in surprise. “You were fucking around with those unstable compounds and you knew it was dangerous. Everyone told you to be careful, but you thought you knew better. You always thought you knew better than everyone else. What happened to you is… it’s fitting. You’re lucky you didn’t die in that lab and take a few people down with you. Hell, you’re lucky the department didn’t press charges against you and send you to jail for destroying half the building.”
Sam didn’t know what to say. It was the first time anyone in his family had brought up what happened in the lab. He had no memory of the day of the explosion and the details of what he had been working on were fuzzy at best, but a few people in the department had hinted that he was solely at fault. He felt a lump rising up in his throat, making it difficult to speak.
Ben’s voice softened, “I know you don’t remember it, Sam. But it’s not like you’re a different person than you were back then.”
“I wish that were true,” Sam said quietly.
“Well, you should be happy then, because you’re the same arrogant, stubborn jerk you always were.”
“Gee, thanks, Ben.”
“Fine, don’t be my best man,” Ben said, rising off the couch. “You’re right, you probably would just fuck it up.”
Sam watched his brother storm out, slamming the door behind him.
When Marie got up to her room, she was surprised to see Anise sitting on their couch in her pajamas, reading a magazine. It was especially shocking, considering it was a Friday night. Anise was never home on a Friday night. There were any number of a dozen guys she had to chose from to buy her dinner. Thus was the life of a beautiful and flirtatious girl.
But as soon as Marie walked in, Anise dropped her magazine and stared. It was almost as if her roommate had been just waiting for her to come home all night. Anise’s gaze was making her uncomfortable.
“What?” Marie finally said.
A smile spread across Anise’s bow-shaped lips. “So how was your date with ol’ Sam?”
“Um, okay.” Marie found herself getting very uncomfortable.
Marie narrowed her eyes. “What are you getting at?”
Anise folded her arms across her chest. “How come you didn’t tell me Sam was disabled?”
Because it’s none of your business? “I don’t know.”
Anise sighed, “Marie, Marie… is this really the reputation you want to build for yourself? I mean, if other guys see you with a disabled guy, they’re going to think you’re… you know, undesirable.”
“Oh, definitely!” Anise nodded her head vigorously. “I mean, did you realize he was in a wheelchair when he asked you out?”
“And you still said yes?”
Marie’s cheeks burned. “Of course.”
Anise was looking at her incredulously. Was it really so hard to believe that she could like Sam, even though he couldn’t walk? Even Anise had said he was cute when she first saw him. And she had just shared the best kiss of her life with him.
“You don’t have to go out with him just because you feel sorry for him,” Anise reminded her. “I mean, one pity date is okay, but don’t do it again.”
“It wasn’t a pity date.”
“You can’t actually like him…”
Not only did Marie actually like Sam, but she felt like she was beginning to really fall for him. He was all she could think about lately and when she finally kissed him, it was all she could do not to physically drag him up the stairs to her room. But she knew there was no way she was going to make Anise understand. And she was beginning to wonder if anyone would understand.
To be continued...