It’s only while I’m driving in the direction of the local mall that I first start to suspect that my obsession with Laura Kramer has possibly crossed some sort of line.
Laura is in my eighth period math class. She sits two seats ahead of me and one to the right. She’s the hottest girl in the school. My best friend Owen disagrees with me on that one, and to be honest, I might be alone in that opinion, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right. She is the hottest girl in the school. Especially when she wears that green sweater.
Unfortunately, Laura doesn’t know I exist. Or if she knows, it’s not in a good way.
So here’s how I ended up at the mall: I sort of overheard Laura and Hadley talking about going to the mall today after school. I wasn’t eavesdropping or anything—my locker is close to theirs and I just heard it. And it coincidentally occurred to me that I really needed some tube socks and the mall would be a perfect place to get them. It’s not that I wanted to go to the mall and follow her around. That would be crazy.
Yes, it’s all about the socks. Riiiiiight.
I drove Owen home as usual, then turned around and headed in the opposite direction, across town to the West End Mall. That was another thing—I didn’t mention to Owen I was going to the mall. Because if I told Owen I was going, then he’d want to tag along. And that would make it harder to… buy socks.
What? I’m allowed to go to the mall on my own. Can’t a guy have some privacy to buy socks? Jesus.
Our local mall is small. Small enough that most teenagers think it’s desperately lame, and only end up there as a last resort. It’s got two levels, containing about a dozen stores, mostly clothing shops, plus the food court. In general, the mall is not that great, but for once, it’s a good thing that it’s so damn small. I’m sure I can find Laura pretty easily there.
Except I’m absolutely not going to watch Laura. I’m going to buy socks, damn it.
Right, socks. I need socks. But if I do see Laura while I’m there, well, I’m allowed to look. It’s a free country, after all, as my twin brother Alex used to say when we were kids and he was nicking my stuff.
I park on the second level, in the handicapped spot by the entrance. When I got my car a few months ago, I told my parents I didn’t want the handicapped plates. I’d just graduated from taking the bus for crippled kids that I’d been taking my entire life, and I didn’t want the plate with the little wheelchair on it to continue to mark me as being the crippled kid. But my parents insisted: You need it, Ethan.
That’s bullshit. I don’t need it. But it definitely helps a lot sometimes. And I’m sure as hell eligible for it, so I may as well have it.
I’ve got my crutches in the seat next to me, and I pull them out as I get out of the car. I can’t stand at all without my crutches. Even with them, walking is a struggle. I lace my forearms through the metal circles and swing myself into a standing position—then there’s that precarious moment when I might lose my balance and end up back in the car again, but I make it this time. I shut the door and start in the direction of the mall.
I haven’t even walked through the doors yet and already everyone is staring at me. There are two pre-teen boys smoking cigarettes right near the entrance, and one nudges the other as he points me out. Seriously, what the hell is so goddamn interesting about me walking?
My left leg is the real problem. I mean, my right isn’t exactly a gem and needs an AFO to support me, but the left is by far the worse of the two. I’ve got a brace running up past my knee, but it still can’t keep the leg from rotating in about 45 degrees, my toes pointing downward, always threatening to trip me up as I walk. I hate my left leg. If my left leg were like my right, I might not need crutches to support me. But I do. And that’s just life.
I really do go to the drug store and pick out a pair of cheap white tube socks. I really do need them—that part wasn’t a lie. I carry them to the back of the line where I’m stuck behind an old lady who’s for some reason got like ten tubes of mascara in her shopping basket. But I guess old people are allowed to wear mascara. Good for her.
The old lady turns when I get in the line, then does the standard double take when she sees my crutches. I can see her debating what to do. It’s the oldest ethical dilemma: who goes first—the elderly or the crippled?
“Hello there,” the old lady says in a kindly old lady voice.
“Hi,” I mumble. I do not want to make conversation with this lady.
“Are you all by yourself here?” she asks me.
Great. She probably thinks I’m retarded.
“Uh, yeah.” I avoid eye contact, just focusing on hanging onto my crutches and the socks simultaneously.
“Good for you!” she says.
The cashier calls for the next person in line, which I hope to God ends this conversation. It’s the old lady’s turn, but she quickly volunteers, “This young man is going to go next!”
It’s her good deed of the day. Fine. Whatever.
“Do you know how to pay?” the old lady asks me.
Are you kidding me? Yes, I fucking know how to pay. Jesus fucking Christ.
I pay for the socks as fast I can manage and then get the hell out of the store, hoping I’m at least slightly faster than the old lady. (Probably not.) I thread the handle of the plastic bag of socks through my wrist so my hands are still free to grip my crutch handles.
My intention was to go to the food court, thinking Laura might be there. Well, not entirely because of that. I also want to get some food. That’s not creepy. I’m allowed to eat food in the food court of the local mall, right? It’s a free country.
Except before I get to the food court, I spot Laura and Hadley inside a Gap. Hadley’s holding up a T-shirt to her skinny frame and Laura’s laughing. Laura’s wearing a pair of jeans that might have been a bit too snug, but look amazing on her. She was wearing another of her sweaters that makes her tits look huge and the whole thing is making me weak in the knees. Weaker, that is.
When I’ve been hovering outside the Gap for several minutes, I realize how bad this looks. If Laura had any idea I’ve been following her, she’d be really disgusted. Actually, it might go beyond disgusted. I’m trying to keep my distance, making sure she doesn’t see me, but I really don’t want to have to explain to my parents that the cops picked me up for stalking a girl.
Damn, I am such a loser.
Hadley finally discards the T-shirt and the girls leave the store. And before I know it, I’m following her. Until they get to the escalator.
The escalator and I are not simpatico. When you’ve been on either crutches or a wheelchair for your entire life, the idea of mounting rapidly moving stairs is pretty damn scary. Hell, even the kind of stairs that don’t move are challenging for me. Worse is the fact that when we were kids, my brother Alex always made the escalator seem like it was more fun than Disneyland. I remember watching him hopping on and off those moving stairs like it was nothing, and hating him for it.
But I’m not a little kid anymore. I can take an escalator. If I’m careful. I’ve done it before.
I stand in front of the escalator, taking deep breaths, trying to work up my nerve. It would probably have taken me longer, but there’s a line forming behind me and I know it’s now or never. Here I go: one, two, three…
And now I’m on the escalator. As soon as I’m safely on the steps, I let go of my crutch with one hand to hang on to the railing. I’m still nervous, but this is going… well, as good as it could be. I’m on the goddamn escalator and I haven’t fallen or died or anything like that.
I crane my neck and I can see Laura and Hadley in the distance. They’re lingering at a bench while Hadley’s texting someone on her phone. Laura’s checking her watch.
I could kick myself for being dumb enough to take my eyes off the escalator for even a split second. While staring at Laura, I’d come to the bottom, and I didn’t prepare myself for the dismount. Before I know what’s happening, I’m sprawled out on the hard marble floor of the mall. Not my finest moment, that’s for sure.
I’ve fallen before. Many times. I’m sort of an expert. I’ve fallen in my house, at school, on the street, and this isn’t even my first spill at the mall. And every single time has one thing in common—it’s always an utterly humiliating experience. Within five seconds, there’s a huge crowd surrounding the poor crippled kid who fell. Someone is calling for a paramedic.
“I’m okay,” I try to say as I fumble for my crutches. “I’m okay!”
“Should we call 911?” a lady asks, crouching over me.
Oh God. “No!” I say. “Really, I’m fine.”
Like three people reach out to try to help me to my feet, even though I’m completely capable of doing it on my own. I deserve this, really. For being such an idiot. I’m never going to take the escalator again, for starters. Also, I’m done with Laura Kramer. Done. This was a wake-up call, seriously.
No matter how I feel about Laura, she will never feel the same way back. Maybe she’s not the most popular girl in school, but she’s cool enough that she’d never consider dating the kid with cerebral palsy with leg braces and crutches. It’s just… impossible. I can’t forget who I am and the reality of my situation.
What I’ve been doing is really unhealthy and pathetic and just wrong. From now on, I’m not going to follow Laura, I’m not going to look at her, I’m not even going to think about her. I’m going to forget she even exists.
“Are you all right?”
So somehow the girl that I just forgot (okay, I didn’t really) is now standing right in front of me. I’ve never been so close to her before and I see now that her eyes are very green and pretty. And concerned. And also, she smells nice.
I’m being weird. I know it.
“I’m fine,” I mumble, lifting my hand off one of my crutches to rub my chin. I think I banged it in the fall and it feels sore.
Laura offers me a smile and I literally almost faint. What the hell is wrong with me? “That happened to me once. I was on the escalator and I got distracted, and bam, I was on the floor! It was pretty embarrassing.”
“Tell me about it,” I say. Did that really happen? It’s hard to imagine. Is she just making this story up to make me feel better?
Laura bends down to pick something up from the floor, and for a second, I can see down her shirt. I catch a glimpse of her cleavage and it’s almost more than I can handle. Surprise, surprise—I’m not experienced with cleavage. She straightens up and hands me a plastic bag. “This is yours, right?”
It’s my white tube socks. As if this couldn’t get any more awkward. Well, at least it’s not underwear. “Thanks,” I say, grabbing them from her.
“You’re Ethan, right?” she says. “From Mrs. Schmidt’s eighth period calculus?”
She knows who I am! I spend two whole seconds being thrilled, until it occurs to me that of course she knows who I am. I’m the crippled kid. I’m the twin brother of Alex Weiss, the school’s star quarterback. Those things tend to make me stand out—and not in the way I want.
“Yeah,” I say, trying to sound cool but likely failing. Honestly, I have no idea how to be cool. “And you’re… Laura? Right?”
Where did I learn to lie like that? Must have picked it up from Alex.
She nods and glances back at Hadley, who’s still texting. But she manages to glance up long enough to give us a dirty look. “Do you know Hadley?”
I nod. “Hi, Hadley.”
“Hey,” Hadley mumbles in reply, then goes back to texting.
“Listen,” Laura says. “We’re going to the food court to get some pretzels. You want to come?”
I don’t know who’s more shocked—me or Hadley. Probably me, but it’s definitely close. Hadley nearly drops her phone, and she stares at Laura in some combination of outrage and befuddlement.
“Sure,” I say, trying to remind myself to breathe. Hadley’s expression edges a few notches further toward outrage.
It’s really surreal to be following Laura and Hadley to the food court in the mall. I can tell Hadley is trying to pretend like she doesn’t know me—walking at least five paces behind us. But Laura is nicer. She’s keeping in step with me, which is probably really hard for her, considering I’m so freaking nervous that I’m not walking well at all. My turned-in left foot keeps nearly tripping me up even more than usual. My hands are so sweaty that it’s hard to grip my crutches. At this moment, I feel every bit the kid with CP.
“Are you ready for the test on Friday?” Laura asks me.
“I guess so,” I say. With Laura in the class with me, it was pretty hard to focus on the lectures lately. I’m probably going to bomb the test. “I probably should have studied for it more.”
“I’m sure you’ll do great,” she says. “You’re, like, the smartest person in the class.”
“I am?” I’m not. I never thought so. And I can’t imagine someone else would think so.
“Yes, definitely,” she says. Then she giggles: “But we have a pretty dumb class.”
She has a great laugh. She’s so cute and sexy, just being close to her is kind of amazing. How is it possible she doesn’t have a boyfriend? She must have turned a bunch of guys down or something, which doesn’t bode well for me.
When we get to the food court, the pretzel stand is empty. I really want to pay for Laura’s pretzel, but how can I without making it obvious I’m into her? I guess I could pay for both the girls’ pretzels. But Hadley gets hers so quickly that I don’t even have a chance to offer.
We find a round table, and Hadley makes a special point of sitting as far away from me as possible. Okay, you don’t want to be seen with me. I get it, thanks a lot. Laura sits right next to me though. I stash my crutches under the table so that I can feel like I’m almost a normal guy, sitting next to a cute girl eating a pretzel. From the chest up, I seem normal. Not great-looking like Alex, but at least normal.
“I love gourmet pretzels,” Laura says, taking a big bite of hers. It looks like cinnamon.
“Me too,” I say, brilliant conversationalist that I am. Mine is salted, which in retrospect was kind of a mistake considering I didn’t get anything to drink. In a few minutes, I’m going to be dying of thirst, choking on the saltiness of the pretzel. And it’s going to be a pain to get up and get myself a drink. I’ll have to dig out my crutches and everyone will get to see me limp to the vending machine in all my CP glory.
Laura somehow predicts my impending thirst though. She pulls a water bottle out of her backpack and holds it out to me. “Want some?” she asks.
I nod gratefully because the thirst situation is getting pretty dire. After a long gulp, I put the water bottle down. And get ready for this, because this is the amazing part: Laura picks up the bottle and takes a sip of her own. She drank from the same bottle as me. Without even thinking about it! Holy shit. I look over at Hadley, who seems equally horrified. She’s probably worried that her friend will catch “crippled.”
Laura pulls out her cell phone and turns to Hadley. “Should I tell my mother to come pick us up soon?”
Hadley, who looks like she can’t bear another minute of this, nods. I almost feel sorry for her, honestly. Laura starts to make the call, and before I can stop myself, I blurt out, “I could give you a ride.”
Damn it, why did I ask her that? Now she’s going to think I like her. I mean, I do like her, but I don’t want her to know that. Because there’s obviously no way she likes me back, and I don’t want her to think I’m some kind of pathetic loser with a crush on her. And now she’ll have to “let me down easy.”
Except Laura puts down the phone and looks at me curiously. “Yeah?”
“I’ve got a car,” I say, encouraged. Half of me prays she’ll say yes, and the other half is terrified she’ll say yes. “It’s no problem for me to give you a ride home. My car is right outside.”
Laura glances over at Hadley, who is shaking her head no. Laura says, “Okay, sure.”
We take the elevator this time to the second floor. Thank God, because I don’t want to die… or worse, fall again in front of Laura. I admit, I’m mildly embarrassed by how beat up my car is. It’s secondhand and covered in dents, and the worst part is the long scratch across the passenger’s side door that I managed to do myself the first month I got the car, while pulling out of a parking space. You’d have thought that I’d have plenty of room parking in the handicapped spots, but apparently, I was still skilled enough to hit something.
Still, most high school students don’t even have a car, scratched or otherwise, so I’m ahead in that respect. I don’t love the fact that I’m parked in a handicapped spot, although I guess it’s only calling attention to something that’s already really obvious. As I unlock the doors, I’ve got my fingers crossed that Laura will ride shotgun and Hadley will go in the back, and I get my wish. Hadley apparently had zero desire to sit next to me.
I pull my legs into the car as fast as I can, hoping the girls won’t notice. I stuff my crutches in the back seat a little too quickly and nearly whack Hadley in the head. She’s sitting in the back, glowering at me, a frown on her bony face. I don’t care though.
“Okay,” I say, when everyone is seated. “Where do you guys live?”
Laura lives closer, but I’d be an idiot to drop her off first. I map out a route in my head to get Hadley out of the car as soon as possible, and then pull onto the road. I turn on the radio, and thank God, the music of Maroon 5 drowns out at least some of the awkwardness. Laura is humming along, tapping out a beat on her jeans, which is just really cute.
When I get to Hadley’s house, she can’t get out of the car fast enough. She actually covers her face as she zips in the direction of her house, like the paparazzi might be watching her. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so insulting.
And then it’s just me and Laura. Alone. No pressure.
Laura is playing with her phone now, scrolling down the screen. She lets out a low whistle. “New Quentin Tarantino movie got ninety percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.”
“Oh yeah?” I lean over her shoulder to look when we hit a red light. I don’t mess around on my phone when I drive. It’s already hard enough to operate hand controls.
“Are you a fan?” she asks.
“Definitely,” I say. Considering how nervous I am, I’m surprised my voice is operating somewhat normally. “I’m a guy, right?”
“I’m totally seeing it,” Laura says. “I love Tarantino.”
“You going with Hadley?”
Laura laughs. “No way. Hadley only likes chick flicks.”
I keep my eyes on the road, avoiding looking at Laura. Okay, does this mean she wants me to ask her to the movies? Is that what this is? Or is she just making polite conversation? She couldn’t possibly want to go on a date with me, could she? Goddamn it, girls are so confusing! Why can’t she just tell me what she wants me to do and I’ll do it?
“My house is right up there,” Laura says, pointing at a small white house at the end of the block.
I pull up to the curb and put the car in park, but I don’t kill the engine. Laura unbuckles her seatbelt and I’ve got just a few seconds before she’s out of the car and I’ll have missed any opportunity I have. Let’s face it, I’ll never work up the nerve to talk to her in school. It’s now or never.
Do it, you wuss!
“Hey,” I say.
Laura looks up and raises her eyebrows. Don’t lose your nerve. “Do you want to see that movie together this weekend?” I ask her.
“Oh,” she says, glancing over at her phone as if to check its opinion. Siri, should I go out with this gimpy guy? “Um, sure.”
“Great,” I say, letting out a breath.
We exchange numbers, agreeing to text each other to figure out a time. It’s almost impossible for me to get her number into my phone because my hands are shaking so badly. As she leaves the car, I replay the conversation in my head. Did that really just happen? She said yes. Holy shit, she said yes…
Of course, I have no idea if this is a date or not. Is this a date? Has she actually agreed to go out on a date with me? It couldn’t be. This must be more of a friends thing for her.
Even though I have no idea where I stand with Laura Kramer, I have to say, I can’t stop grinning like an idiot all the way home.
If you enjoyed this story and want to read more about Ethan and Laura, please consider buying How to Be Cool on Amazon, which is temporarily discounted to 99 cents!