I don’t see Riley the entire rest of the day, which is probably for the best. I need to focus on my work if I’m going to ever advance in my career. I can’t be messing around with weird guys in the computer science department.
When Jill brings me home that night, I find Walt is late again. With him gone, I do a cursory search of the house, looking for evidence of affairs. Despite everything, I still can’t believe Riley’s story is true. Walt is a lot of things, but he’s not a cheater. I know he wouldn’t do that to me.
On his part, Walt is much nicer to me that night. He doesn’t mention my weight, and he brings home dinner himself at a reasonable hour. Maybe he was just under a lot of stress at work the night before. His job is pretty high stress, after all.
“Are you remembering anything?” Walt asks me as we’re getting undressed for bed.
I shake my head no. I’d hoped that by now, I would have remembered something.
“I’m sure it will come back eventually,” he says.
And I wonder, what if it doesn’t?
The next morning, when I get to my office, there’s a small thermos waiting for me next to my door. I pick it up and it feels warm to touch. There’s no note or anything, but it’s obvious who it’s from. After I drink the coffee inside, I rinse it out, and leave it back in the same place I found it. And the next morning, there’s a fresh thermos to take its place.
Work goes more smoothly than I would have expected, everything considered. Amazing how I can still do my job, despite having lost my memory. The only fly in the ointment is that Frank sends out an email, reminding me again of our upcoming yearly evaluation. I know I have zero chance of a promotion this year, so I’m not especially looking forward to this meeting. But I tuck those worries away in the back of my head, like that information Riley told me about Walt cheating on me.
Soon enough, it’s time for the staff barbecue thrown by Frank. I make a valiant attempt to persuade Walt to come with me, but he’s pretty resistant. “I won’t know anyone there,” he whines.
“You know me,” I remind him. “And you know Jill. And my boss Frank.”
“Frank’s boring,” Walt grumbles. “Jill’s boring too.”
I want to yell at him not to say that about my best friend, but we’ve been getting along reasonably well, and I don’t want to rock the boat (and also, Jill can be kind of boring). Truth be told, we haven’t had sex yet. Walt made one other attempt, but I put him off, citing a splitting headache. I didn’t really have a headache, but for some reason, the thought of having sex with Walt made me ill.
I used to have a ton of cute dresses for parties, but I know without checking that none of them will fit me now. And things haven’t been helped by my “diet” of the past few weeks. Don’t tell Walt, but I’m been cheating a lot. It’s so easy to get a burger or a slice of pizza on campus. And they have such good brownies. Even though I vowed to lose weight, I somehow put on five pounds.
There’s a navy blue dress in my closet that seems acceptable for the occasion. When I pull it out, it looks gigantic, like a freaking tent. But then I try it on and it’s almost too small. As I struggling to squeeze into the dress, I almost start crying. How did I get so fat and disgusting?
When Jill arrives to pick me up, the dress is still half-zipped. Worse, Jill looks absolutely amazing. She’s wearing the same color as me, navy blue, but her outfit is sleek and sexy, fitting her new slimmer body like a glove. I love Jill, but at this moment, I hate her.
I yank her into the house and present my backside to her. “Zip me up, please,” I say.
I hear Jill grunting as she struggles to get the zipper up. “Mags, it won’t go…”
The tears rise in my eyes. “Yes, it will. Try harder.” This dress is size 14. It is gigantic. How could this dress not fit me?
With much struggling, Jill eventually manages to get the zipper all the way up. My breasts are practically spilling out of the neckline, and I can hardly breathe. But it fits. I’m wearing it. And I swear to God, tomorrow I’m going on a strict crash diet. No more messing around. If I keep gaining at this rate, somebody is going to rename me Shamu and put me in a tank of water at the aquarium.
I get in Jill’s car, feeling very much like her fat friend. I suddenly feel kind of regretful that I turned down Walt’s request for sex the other night. I’m lucky anyone is willing to have sex with me, especially someone as handsome as Walt.
“Are we picking up Peter?” I ask her when we get on the highway.
Jill shakes her head. “He has to work late tonight.” She shrugs. “Screw him. You’re more fun at these things anyway.”
The barbecue is at Frank’s house, in his backyard, and there are so many cars lined up along his street that we have to park two blocks away. I’m in shoe agony as Jill and I hoof it to the party. I can’t believe this—even my feet have gotten fat lately.
Frank has one of those gigantic yards that easily fits the members of the English department, many of whose names I had to learn from looking them up online. And there are several unfamiliar faces too, including one very, very familiar face. I grab Jill’s arm and whisper in her ear, “What’s Riley doing here?”
Jill looks at me in surprise. “Frank always invites the computer science staff to his parties. His wife Susan is a professor in the department. That’s how you met Riley in the first place.”
I stare at Riley across the yard, my feet now somehow frozen in place. I can tell he’s actually made an effort to look good tonight, and it’s paid off. His black hair is somewhat combed out (I suspect nothing could make it lay flat aside from the strongest hair gel) and he’s wearing a black dress shirt that’s well ironed and hides any imperfections in his upper body. His legs... well, I guess he can’t do much with them. But still, I have to admit, he looks very cute tonight, even though he’s not my type at all.
He’s talking to an attractive woman in her late forties that I don’t recognize. For a second, I feel an irrational flash of jealousy, but I can’t imagine why I’d feel that way about Riley. He’s not mine and I don’t want him. And anyway, that woman is too old for him. I haven’t precisely pinned down his age, but I’m guessing about mid-thirties.
As Jill pulls me over to join the party, I wonder if he’ll come over to talk to me. We haven’t spoken a word since my outburst almost two weeks ago, but every morning, he’s had a thermos of coffee waiting for me. When I see that thermos, I feel a burst of happiness that breaks through my otherwise somewhat depressing day. I don’t know why he keeps making me coffee after the way I treated him.
“That’s Susan over there,” Jill murmurs in my ear, and she’s pointing to the woman talking to Riley. “She’s kind of an embarrassment. But Frank seems to like her.”
My stomach grumbles, so I excuse myself from Jill and fill up a plate with hors d’oerves. I end up taking way too much, but by the time I realize it, the food is already on my plate, so it’s not like I can put it back. My diet is going to start tomorrow. I swear.
As I munch on a stuffed mushroom, I watch Susan and Riley talking. He’s saying something that she apparently thinks is really funny, and she covers her mouth as she snorts with laughter. I suppose Riley is pretty funny, in a dorky kind of way. I didn’t mean to stare so long, and Riley notices that I’m looking at him. He doesn’t say anything or come over to me, but he smiles and winks in my direction.
“Margaret!” Frank is suddenly in my face, his cheeks tinged with pink, which I know from experience means that he’s been drinking. “How are you?”
“Wonderful,” I lie. I notice the wine glass in Frank’s hand and think that a little alcohol might do me some good right now. Dr. Vance warned me not to drink because of my head injury, but it’s been a couple of weeks and I don’t think a single drink will hurt. Or five drinks. “Where’s the wine, by the way?”
Frank chuckles. “It’s right behind you. And please, make sure you say hello to Susan. She’s been very excited about seeing you again today.”
“Oh, me too,” I lie again. He’s acting like Susan and I are BFFs. I must be a very convincing actress.
I glance over at Riley and Susan, who are now talking very quietly together. There’s no way I’m going over there now. Instead, I head for the table filled with bottles of wine. I pick out a nice bottle of Pinot Noir and poor myself a nice, heaping glass. I need this so badly.
I take a small sip of wine and it’s glorious. Just then, I feel an arm lace into mine. I turn and see Susan’s round, pleasing face staring into mine. “Maggie!” she exclaims. “I’m so happy you could make it!”
“Me too,” I say. And add, “Great to meet... er, see you again.”
“I love your dress,” Susan says, and I feel embarrassed by how tight it is.
“Yours is great too,” I say. She actually does look very nice in a modest, but well-made skirt and blouse.
“Go on,” Susan laughs. She smiles at me. “We redid the first floor of the house. You must come inside and take a look.”
I really don’t want to take a tour of the house, but then again, this is my boss’s wife. So, I’m taking a tour of the house. “Sure, sounds great,” I say.
Susan lifts the wine glass out of my hand and places it down on the table. “Sorry to be a bummer, but my carpeting is very light in color and I get so nervous when people drink red wine over it.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say, allowing her to take my drink but with a distinct twinge of regret.
I allow Susan to lead me into the house, which is decorated in tans and beiges. She goes on and on about the decor, but to be honest, it doesn’t look a whole lot different from the last time I remember being here, and that was three years ago. But I suppose she felt she needed to put her own distinctive stamp on the place. “Of course,” Susan is saying to me, “I’d never have used colors like these when my boys were young. Only now that they’re off to college do I even dare.”
There’s a twinkle in her eye when she says that. Naturally, Susan is a mother. She looks like a really fun mother. I can imagine her with a slew of rowdy sons. Of course, this all just serves as a reminder of my problems conceiving with Walt.
“I heard about the accident, Maggie,” Susan says, concern in her eyes. “Are you okay?”
I nod. “Oh, yes.”
“There’s something about you that seems a little different to me,” she says hesitantly. Her voice is so soft and gentle that for a second, I’m tempted to confess everything to her. I feel like I could tell her everything, even the part about Riley, and she’d understand and tell me what to do. Then I remember she’s my boss’s wife, so that’s definitely not going to happen. Mums the word.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I say innocently.
“Well, Riley is worried about you anyway,” she says. My stomach does a flip-flop.
“Did he say that?”
“Oh, not in so many words,” she says. “But I know him very well, and I can tell.”
“You know Riley very well? Like since he’s worked at Ohio State?”
Susan shakes her head. “No, no. Maybe ten years? Longer, I think. I convinced him to leave Case Western and come here. I was his adviser when he was getting his PhD.” She raises her eyebrows. “You knew that, didn’t you, Maggie?”
“Yes, yes, of course...” Shit. I have to be more careful. Of course, a terrible realization pops into my mind. If Susan knows Riley that well, maybe she knows the truth about him and me, whatever that truth is. But I can’t very well ask her if Riley and I were a couple or if he’s just been stalking me. Maybe there’s some subtle way to find out.
“Of all the students I ever advised,” Susan says, “Riley was my favorite. That’s why when I came here, I knew we had to have him.”
“Really?” I ask, genuinely surprised.
Susan gives me a look that makes the shrimp with bacon churn around in my stomach. “Well, I don’t have to tell you, do I?”
She knows. She knows. Shit. My boss’s wife knows there’s something (who knows what) going on between me and a man who is not my husband. This is just... really, really bad. Of course, if she likes Riley, she won’t blow the whistle. Will she?
I grab onto the sofa, my legs swaying under me, when Frank sticks his head in the living room, an anxious expression on his face. “Susan! How do you get the barbecue started?”
Susan laughs and winks at me. “Men. They’re so helpless, right?”
I follow Susan back outside, still feeling a little shaken by my revelation. I look around for Riley, but he’s next to the barbecue grill with Susan and Frank, so I’m definitely not going over there. I’m considering getting another glass of wine when Jill comes over to me and whispers in my ear: “Do you think they’re having an affair?”
A cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. “What?”
Jill nudges me and nods in the direction of the barbecue grill. “Susan and Riley. They’re pretty buddy-buddy, don’t you think? And we know you’re not having an affair with Riley.”
I force a smile. “Yes, maybe.”
“Poor Frank,” Jill sighs. “First he gets two-timed for a samba teacher, then for a disabled comp sci professor. I don’t know which is worse.” She pauses, looking thoughtful. “I wonder if Riley can even have sex though.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think he can move his legs,” Jill notes. “So... you know, he’s paralyzed, right? So I’d imagine other things might be paralyzed...”
“Oh!” I feel my face turning red. I glance over at Riley, and thank God, he’s not looking this way. “I... I have no idea.” I clear my throat. “Kind of TMI, right?”
Jill laughs. “Totally. Riley Samuels having sex is definitely not something I want to picture.”
And then, against my will, I see Riley’s half-naked body underneath mine as we lay together in damp grass. My hands run through his short black hair and his calloused fingers run up the bare skin of my back. I know the image is just in my mind, but it seems so vivid that it’s almost impossible to believe that it didn’t really happen. But it didn’t. It couldn’t have.
“I need a drink,” I announce.
I head back to the table with all the wine and pour myself a second heaping glass of white to replace my red, which has long since been cleared away. I’ve taken a nice big gulp when Susan gets up in the center of the yard and waves her arms to get our attention. “What now?” Jill murmurs.
“Attention! Attention!” Susan calls out. “We’ve got the barbecue going and we’ll have your food in just a few minutes.” She pauses for cheering, mostly from the computer science department. “In the meantime, my good friend Riley is going to entertain us all with a little juggling.”
Jill groans audibly. Oh no. Riley, please don’t juggle. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself in public that way.
But it looks like this is really going to happen. Riley wheels to the center of the yard and his colleagues look really excited. For them, I guess this is the height of entertainment. He’s got some juggling balls shoved to the side of his leg, and I notice his leg shifts slightly as he pulls out three of the balls. “Three!” he calls out, then starts tossing them into the air.
He’s pretty good, I guess. I mean, it can’t be that hard to juggle three balls. Not that I’ve ever tried, believe me.
“Four!” he calls out. He grabs another ball from the side of his leg, and tosses it into the mix. A few seconds later: “Five!” And now he’s got five balls in the air. “Six!”
Okay, I’m slightly impressed. I’m not entirely sure it’s in a good way. It’s more like the way I was impressed when this kid in the cafeteria burped the alphabet when we were eight. But that kid wasn’t as cute as Riley.
“Seven!” he calls out. And now he’s got seven balls in the air, which is met with a smattering of applause. Even Frank is watching now, which is probably why I smell burning hamburger.
“Who does he think he’s impressing?” Jill mutters in my ear.
All right, I’m a little more than impressed. How are his reflexes good enough to keep catching the balls? And he can’t even move around, which makes the whole thing even more impressive.
Riley has the seven balls going for about sixty seconds when he somehow loses control of one of them. It flies out of his hand, and then, to my total shock, knocks into the wine glass in my hand. I lose my grip on the glass and it tumbles to the ground.
“Oops, sorry,” he says, although I notice a bit of a mischievous glint in his eyes. Then he adds, “Six!”
At this point, Susan rushes over wearing, I kid you not, a top hat. She pulls it off her head and holds it up in the air, and the balls fly into it one by one. When the last ball has disappeared in the hat, the crowd bursts into enthusiastic applause.
“Thank you! Thank you!” Riley says, taking a bow. “And thank you to my lovely assistant, Susan!”
Susan curtseys, which causes Jill to roll her eyes, although I think it’s sort of cute.
Frank has amassed a supply of grilled meat by this point, so everyone rushes over to get food. I’m about to follow when Riley rolls over to me, cutting me off at the pass. He’s grinning at me. “What did you think?”
“I think I can’t believe you do that in public.”
He grins wider. “Because it’s too awesome for the general public to see?”
I make a face. “Yeah, something like that.”
“Well, I know it’s not as cool as being in the marching band…”
I stare at him. “How did you… did I tell you that I was…?”
“You sure did,” he laughs. “And I warned you that you’d live to regret it, Marching Band Girl.”
“Shush,” I say, glancing around to make sure no one is listening.
“Anyway,” he says, “I’m sorry I hit you with a ball.” Although I find it very hard to believe that wasn’t purposeful. Probably Riley’s screwed up idea of foreplay: hitting a girl with a juggling ball.
“No problem,” I say. “I’ll just grab another glass of wine.”
Riley eyes the table where the bottles use to be. “Uh, I think Susan cleared it away.”
I turn back to the wine table in a panic. He’s right! All the bottles of wine have vanished.
“I think they’re supposed to go with the appetizers or something,” he says, shrugging.
Crap. Well, that’s just great.
“Are you supposed to be drinking, anyway?” he says. “Didn’t you have, like, a severe head injury?”
I make a face at him. “Sorry, Mommy.”
“Seriously,” he says. “I read that having a brain injury lowers your seizure threshold and so does alcohol. You don’t want to have a seizure, I assume.”
“No, I don’t,” I admit grudgingly. “Fine, no alcohol.” It’s not like there’s any left anyway.
“Good,” he says.
We stand there (well, I stand, he sits), staring at each other for a minute. I have about a hundred things to say, but I’m not quite sure how to say any of it. Finally, I say, “I’m sorry for what I said to you last week.”
Riley raises his eyebrows. “Really? So does that mean you believe me?”
I wring my fists together. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
Riley’s face darkens slightly.
“But,” I add quickly, “I know whatever you said, you didn’t say it to hurt me. I don’t know what’s true, but… I don’t think you were intentionally lying.”
“Well, thanks.” There’s a note of sarcasm in his voice, but I choose to ignore it.
“Anyway,” I say, “I’m not sure what happened in the past, but I think we should start over. Be friends. Just friends.”
Riley doesn’t answer right away. Finally, he says, “Okay, sure.”
“You’re okay with that?”
He nods. “If that’s the best I’m going to get, then yes, I’m okay with it.”
“It is,” I say firmly.
“Well, then, friend,” he says, grinning slightly. “Would you care to have a friendly lunch with me on Monday on campus?”
Lunch with Riley? Well, what harm could that do? “Sure.”
“I’ve got my Computation Theory class ending at one,” he says. “Can you meet me at the Caldwell Lab?”
“Sure,” I say again.
“Great,” Riley says. He glances back at the barbecue grill, “All right, let’s get some food before the wolves devour it.”
I shift in my dress, which has only gotten tighter over the course of the evening. If a size 14 is too tight on me, I shouldn’t be eating cheeseburgers. “I think I’ll pass,” I say, despite the fact that the food smells incredible. “I’m almost too fat for my dress as it is.”
Riley turns back to look at me. He’s very quiet for a few seconds, then he says, “I think you’re beautiful.”
It’s not just what he says, but the way he says it. I feel a flush rise in my cheeks, go down my neck, and into my chest. “Thank you,” I mumble.
Yeah, this friendship thing is going to work out real great.
To be continued....