SIX MONTHS LATER
“Introducing, for the very first time, Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Ziegler!”
Sam watched as his brother and his new wife took the dance floor for their very first dance as a married couple. The newlyweds were gazing at each other with the deep affection plain on their faces, and Sam felt nothing but happiness for his younger brother. Ben had found a wonderful woman to spend his life with.
Sam pulled at the collar of his tux, which had been choking him all day. He couldn’t wait to get home and take it off. “I hate this fucking tux,” he muttered under his breath.
The pretty girl with green eyes sitting next to him heard his comment and whispered in his ear, “Yes, but you look so handsome in it.”
Sam grinned at her. He had met Laurel about five months ago, after Elise had set them up. They went out for pizza on their first date and within an hour, Sam was smitten. He still felt like he was on the rebound from Marie, so they agreed to take things slow. They finally had sex about a month ago, and as great as that had been, he was much more anxious about meeting her parents. He had postponed that inevitability for after Ben’s wedding, because he didn’t think he could deal with losing her right before the wedding.
Sam vowed to be more honest with Laurel than he was with Marie. He didn’t want to overwhelm her, but he also didn’t want there to be any surprises. He brought her along with him to his class one evening so she could see firsthand the kind of deficiencies he had to deal with. He also showed her each of his medications and explained to her what he used them for. Laurel’s eyes had teared up slightly when he showed her his medication for depression. You really still need this?
It’s not because of you, he said earnestly. He hoped the anti-depressant was one of the medications he’d be able to get off one day, but for the time being, he knew he was stuck with it.
Laurel’s hand slid up his neck and into his hair. She pulled him closer for a kiss. Laurel was a great kisser. “You’re nervous?” she asked.
She smiled, “You’re shaking a little.”
“Oh…” he laughed. “Yeah, I guess I’m anxious about the toast.”
“You don’t have to do it,” Laurel reminded him. “Ben won’t mind.”
“I’m the best man, I should do it,” he said with resolve.
Sam had written his short toast out on index cards and practiced it last night for Laurel. She loved it… or at least, she said she did. He really wanted to do this for Ben, but he was terrified of screwing it up. He had even discussed it with the teacher at his class and she had given him some tips. Ben had told him repeatedly that he didn’t have to give a speech, but Sam wanted to do it. Not even for Ben so much as to prove to himself that he could do it.
“I’ll be right here next to you when you’re ready,” Laurel said as she gave his hand a squeeze.
Laurel was amazing, but it was hard not to compare her to Marie. Even though things were going really well with Laurel, he still thought about Marie a lot. He saw her about two or three times a week, when she came to the library. At first it was too painful to talk to her, but gradually, they became friends again. It helped that Sam was dating someone else and Marie wasn’t. He even got the feeling she was a little jealous sometimes.
As hard as it was to admit to himself, Sam realized that Marie had done the right thing when she broke up with him. They both needed time to think, to gain perspective. After all, Sam didn’t want to be with Marie because he needed to be with her. He liked knowing that there were other women out there that found him attractive, and if things didn’t work out with Laurel either, there would be someone else.
Sam believed there was still a chance for him and Marie. If things didn’t work out with Laurel, and Marie didn’t find somebody else, maybe they would give it another try.
There was a break in the music and people left the dance floor. Laurel’s hands were on his shoulders, massaging his tight muscles. Laurel was a masseuse, and god, it was nice to get free rubdowns. “You’re really tense,” she commented.
“Let me just do it now,” he said.
“Yeah, let’s get it over with.” He took a deep breath. “Can you clink the glasses?”
“No problem, I’ll clink.”
Laurel stood up and started clinking her glass with her spoon to get the attention of the crowd. Sam’s heart started pounding in his chest. He hadn’t given a speech in front of a room full of people since his injury and he was terrified. But there was no turning back now. He pulled out his index cards and struggled to hold them straight with his shaking hands. He was terrified of dropping them and then having no idea what to say.
“Hello, everybody!” Laurel called out into the now quiet room. “The best man would like to say a few words.”
Laurel rested her hand on his shoulder as she slid back into her seat. Sam wished he could stand up to give the speech, but that wasn’t a possibility. He cleared his throat. “Hi,” he mumbled, looking down at the index card. He knew he was going to have to talk louder than this if he wanted to be heard, so he cleared his throat once more. “Um, I just wanted to say my congratulations to Ben and Elise. And I wanted to apologize to them for losing the ring.” He paused and looked up. “Oh, sorry… when I wrote that, I just assumed I was going to lose the ring.”
There was an appreciative laugh from the guests and Sam felt encouraged. He looked over at his brother, who was grinning at him. “I’ll keep this short because we all know these speeches can get boring fast, and let’s face it, I’m not a great speaker. Ben is the best brother a guy could have and he’s always been there for me when I needed him. I hope he feels that I’ve been there for him as a big brother. Although I’m glad he never asked me to beat anyone up when were kids because… well, it would have been really embarrassing to get my ass kicked by an eight year old.” A twitter of laugher. He took a deep breath, “On a serious note… about six years ago, I almost died. And one of the only things I remember from back then was that my brother was at my bedside every single day. He never left my side. That’s the kind of person he is. And he deserves to have a great life. He deserves to be happy.”
The room was quiet now and Sam felt his heart pounding in his chest. “Knowing Ben as well as I do, I can see how happy Elise makes him just by the way he looks at her and the way he talks about her all the damn time. Actually, I’ve never seen him this happy before. And you can just tell they’re going to be one of those sweet old couples that’s going to be holding hands in matching rocking chairs at the nursing home someday.” He paused while the crowd laughed again, the awkwardness of his earlier comments broken. “Anyway, I wish Ben and Elise the best luck and I hope you guys have a great honeymoon and make lots of nieces of nephews for me to play with.” He lifted his glass. “To Ben and Elise.”
As the guests toasted the newlyweds, Sam finally felt his shoulders relax. Laurel gave him a peck on the cheek and he grinned at her. “Good job, sweetie,” she said.
“Yeah, you don’t think those were pity laughs?”
Laurel slugged him playfully in the shoulder. “My god, Sam, get over yourself!”
Sam held his breath as he watched his brother approaching their table. He fiddled with his tie again and tried to offer a smile until he saw that Ben had tears in his eyes. Ben bent down and hugged Sam so suddenly that he had to grab his wheels for balance before he could return the hug.
“I’m glad you’re here, man,” Ben sniffled. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Marie arrived at the library counter, carrying her usually stack of half a dozen books. She saw Sam checking out the books of long haired young guy ahead of her, who was wearing jeans that sunk low enough to show off two inches off his boxers. She watched as Sam attempted to scan the book the guy had handed him.
“Yeah, I can’t scan this,” Sam said.
“Why not?” the kid asked.
“Um, because you’ve got five overdue books already out.”
“I’ll bring ‘em back tomorrow. I promise.”
Marie knew that conversations like this used to drive Sam crazy. He always told her what frustrations he had to deal with at the library, and when she saw it firsthand, she didn’t blame him for being irritable.
But it seemed like Sam didn’t get nearly as irritable as he used to. Instead of getting out his scissors, he simply handed the library card back to the long-haired kid and laughed, “Okay man, just bring back the books and we’ll talk then, got it?”
When Marie got to the head of the line, she slid her own pile of books across the table to be checked out. “Hi, Marie,” he said.
“Hello, Sam,” she replied. “How’s Laurel?”
Sam lifted his slanted eyes to look at her, “She’s fine.”
Marie didn’t want to admit it, but she was half hoping he’d tell her they had broken up. Lately, she had been thinking about Sam more and more. “Your brother’s wedding was yesterday, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was.”
“Did you give a toast?”
He nodded, “Yeah, it went… good. Not nearly as awful as you’d think.”
“I wouldn’t think—”
“I know what you think of me,” Sam said abruptly.
Marie’s cheeks turned red. He was still angry that she had dumped him the way she did. He knew that she had been afraid that his brain damage would keep him from living a normal life, or at least, the kind of life she wanted.
Sam reached the third book in the pile, “Marie, this is a reference book. You know that. I can’t check it out for you.”
“I thought maybe…”
“There’s no bar code,” he pointed out. “There’s nothing I can do.”
“Well,” she said, “you could let me stay late and read it…”
Sam leaned back in his chair and looked at her for a long time, “Yeah, I don’t know how Laurel would feel about that.”
“It would be totally innocent.”
He folded his arms across his chest, as if thinking about. Finally he said, “No, it’s too soon.”
Marie nodded in understanding. It wouldn’t be the last time she asked to stay late at the library and she hoped that next time he would say yes.
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