Liam’s still Trouble.
Those are my first thoughts when I see Liam sitting at a table at Chelsea Clinton, our favorite bar in the city. This bar has been here for fifty years—before the birth of the eponymous daughter of Bill Clinton—located in the intersection between two neighborhoods in Manhattan: Chelsea and Clinton. Chelsea is on the west side, going from about 14th street into the twenties, whereas Clinton (known less favorably as Hell’s Kitchen) goes from 34th street up into the fifties. Therefore, Chelsea Clinton.
It’s Friday night, so not surprisingly, Liam didn’t get a great table. He’s sitting in the back, nursing a beer while he flirts with a waitress even though he’s got a girlfriend who’s downright gorgeous. I’ve yet to go to a restaurant with him where he doesn’t flirt with the waitress—I think it’s automatic for him—but when we’re together, he never tries to get their phone number. He has fantastic success with getting phone numbers from waitresses in spite of being in a wheelchair, at least partially because in the last twenty-seven years since we met on the school bus, he’s gone from cute to sexy. The freckles are mostly gone unless you get really close, but he still has that adorably tousled red-brown hair, now more brown than red. He still has the impish grin and that’s what does it for him. When he smiles like that, he gets whatever he wants.
Well, except for a table at Chelsea Clinton that doesn’t suck, apparently.
I wonder if he’s trying to get the waitress’s number now—he often tries, even when he doesn’t even want it. The first time he ever successfully got a number was when we were eighteen. He called me up after, all excited. “Maddie, I got her number!” he said. “And I called it and she picked up! It was her real number!”
“So are you going out?” I asked him.
“No,” he said sheepishly. “I got nervous when she picked up, so I hung up.”
Of course, that was a long time ago. He’s been out with lots of waitresses since then. He doesn’t get nervous when he asks for numbers anymore. I don’t know what makes Liam nervous these days. Probably nothing.
When Liam catches sight of me, he stops talking to the waitress and waves maniacally. “Maddie!” he shouts over the sounds of Ke$ha on the radio. “Over here!”
He is very excited to see me.
I repeat to myself that if Liam made it to that table, I can too. My chair has the same width as his. But then again, he uses a manual chair, which has more maneuverability than mine. Still. As Liam always says, “If I did it, so can you.”
It’s not easy, that’s for sure. There’s a point where I’m stuck and I have to ask two people to get up and move their chairs, but just as the song comes to a close, I’m at Liam’s table. I’m not sure how I’ll make it out though. I’ll have to sleep here.
“Maddie!” Liam’s face alights in that grin I’ve come to love. “You made it! I was worried Tyler was holding you captive.”
I don’t know if he’s referring to the fact that I made it to the bar or made it to the table. While Chelsea Clinton’s used to be a regular thing for us, our meetings here have become more and more infrequent. But it’s not entirely Tyler’s fault. He’s got Erin.
Of course, while Tyler hates Liam, Erin loves me. I’m not even exaggerating. Every time we meet, Erin finds something new about me to tell me she loves.
Maddie, I love your haircut.
Maddie, I love your necklace.
Maddie, is that a new shade of lipstick? I love it!
Liam always rolls his eyes at Erin’s over the top professions of love. He knows as well as I do when someone is being patronizing. You don’t spend your whole life in a wheelchair without learning to recognize it. But I forgive her. She’s not the worst girl he’s dated.
“So,” I say, “what was so important you had to talk to me right away?”
Liam considers my question. He traces a pattern in the condensation on his beer. “It’s… complicated.”
“Something about work?”
He shakes his head. It’s hard to believe, but Liam is wildly successful. That sounds mean, but he always struggled in school. He never took his classes seriously. He got away with it more than some kids, but plenty of teachers lost patience with his laziness. In tenth grade, our English teacher called him out while he was pretending to have read Hamlet but clearly hadn’t: “So is your plan to just spend your life being supported by the government?”
“You have to admit,” Liam said with a grin, “it’s a pretty good plan. I think it would definitely work.”
He never meant it. Liam never wanted to be an invalid who had to rely on welfare to get by. Luckily for him, he developed an interest in computers early on and became obsessed with them. He showed off for me that he could take his home computer apart and put it back together. Even though my mother didn’t like Liam that much, she was grateful that he came by to help when their PC was acting up. (I’m convinced my dad was downloading porn.)
And then Liam and his friend Jack developed some software that is now used by a huge number of companies. Even my company uses it. I’d never ask how much money Liam made from his software, but I know it’s a lot.
I suspect that’s another reason Tyler and Liam don’t get along. Because Liam’s been more successful than Tyler in similar fields. With men, everything is a pissing contest.
“Work’s great,” he says. “No complaints.”
“So is it about Erin?”
He sucks in a breath, which I suspect means the answer is yes. He confided in me soon after he and Erin started dating that he discovered she was still a virgin. He was shocked by that one. I lost my virginity on the late side, when I was twenty-four, but I was still younger than Erin. “Does it bother you?” I asked him.
“I’m not too worried.” He winked at me. “Give me two months.”
Two months later, I asked him if Erin was still a virgin and he grinned like the cat who got the canary. The boy is persuasive. And the thing about Liam is they never see him coming. Women think he’s harmless.
I didn’t see it coming either.
But that’s something I don’t think about anymore. Not if I want to keep my friendship with him.
Before Liam can fill me in on any details about Erin, the waitress arrives to take our orders. It makes me realize how long it’s been since I’ve been out at a restaurant without Tyler and been able to order a Sam Adams without him giving me a disapproving look. I’m going to order whatever I want tonight, even if it’s fried and disgusting and fatty.
“So what’s going on with Erin?” I ask. A thought occurs to me: “Are you thinking about asking her to get married?”
He snorts. “Hardly.”
I don’t want to admit it, but his answer fills me with relief. I don’t want Liam to get married. I know eventually he will, and I’ll deal with it then, but I’m not ready to lose him to another woman. I know it sounds silly, but we’ve never been apart for very long. We’ve always lived in the same town.
He looks up at me, as if considering something. Then he looks down at his hands, which are deeply calloused from all his years of wheeling. Mine, in contrast, are very soft. Operating a joystick control doesn’t cause too much wear and tear.
“Actually,” he says, “I don’t really want to talk about it anymore. If that’s okay.”
I frown at him, but I don’t push him. When he’s ready, he’ll talk to me. He always does.
Somehow I never run out of things to talk about with Liam. We spent a good hour reminiscing, then I tell him about my promotion at work, to the lead engineer on this radar project. Liam tells me about how the principal at our old high school called to invite him to talk to the kids about careers in computer science.
“I was like, maybe you don’t want me to motivate your students,” he says, “after I almost got expelled at least twice.”
I can think of at least a dozen times when there was concern Liam wouldn’t be invited to come back to our school. He couldn’t help himself—it was one thing after another. I only saw it for the first time when I was in fourth grade because even though Liam and I attended the same elementary school, we were always separated because it would be “too much” to have both of us in the same class. I’m not entirely sure what that meant—I was easy. Liam was the one who was a handful. But I guess they thought if there were two disabled kids in one room, the place might explode?
When we were in fourth grade, the hand of God stepped in and we ended up in the same class. I’d overheard our mother’s talking about Liam’s issues at school, but it was something to see firsthand. Liam was always thinking up some new way to disrupt the class. My personal favorite was when he brought in a bottle of fake blood and drenched his pants with it, then came back from recess moaning in pain. Our seventy-year-old grouch of a teacher Mrs. Baker nearly spit out her dentures. If she had been a nicer person, I might have felt sorry for her. But she was the kind of woman who I believe specifically became a teacher because she hated children and wanted to torture them, so the class rallied around Liam’s antics. And by the end of the school year, she really hated Liam.
As one of his punishments, she assigned him an oral presentation on Benjamin Franklin. On the day he was to give the presentation, it was clear he was utterly unprepared. (He had also confided in me that he thought the whole thing was stupid.) But when she called on him, he grabbed his forearm crutches and dutifully headed to the front of the room.
He stood there for a minute, swaying on his crutches. Over his childhood, Mrs. Murphy was always trying to get Liam to walk more, something he also deemed to be “stupid.” She believed it was good for his bones and flexibility, but he hated the effort it took. (I secretly think his mother made him use them just to wear him out and take some of the fight out of him.) The minute he turned eighteen, he stuffed his crutches and braces in a closet and only uses them when absolutely necessary.
“Hello, friends and classmates,” Liam said to the room, clearly stalling for time. “I’d like to give a talk for you today about a great man named Benjamin Franklin. Who was Benjamin Franklin, you ask? Well, it might be easier to tell you the things he was not. For example, he was not a president. He was not a chef. He was not a circus clown. He was not George Washington. He was not—”
“Liam, please stop this nonsense,” Mrs. Baker interrupted him.
He blinked at her. “I’m just giving my presentation, Mrs. Baker.”
“Liam, this is your last warning if you don’t want to go to the principal’s office.”
Liam had made good friends with everyone in the principal’s office that year, but it seemed like it was enough to convince him to move on. “So now that we’ve talked about everything Benjamin Franklin didn’t do, let’s talk about the things that Benjamin Franklin did do. So before Benjamin Franklin came along, it was always very dark at night. People couldn’t read or sew things or milk cows or churn butter or whatever they used to do back then. So Benjamin Franklin thought this was a bad thing. And that’s why he decided to invent… the lightbulb!”
“Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb,” Mrs. Baker hissed at him.
“Are you sure?”
Then Liam looked at me, sitting in my wheelchair in the front of the room as always, and I nodded.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, in that case—”
“Liam, go back to your seat.”
We manage to demolish a plate of onion rings, as well as a plate of French fries and sliders. Chelsea Clinton’s has the best onion rings. No other place compares. They’re crispy on the outside, and the onions on the inside melt in your mouth.
After we finish our food and our beers, I look at my watch and cringe at the time. It won’t be long before Tyler starts wondering where I am. He also might wonder why I smell like cigarettes, but I have the entire trip home to come up with an answer for that one.
“I better go,” I say.
“Why? It’s not even eight. When does your PCA come?”
It’s a relief to be with someone who knows I need a care assistant to help me at night, which limits how late I can stay out. Even our couple friends, Claude and Nina don’t know about that. We always mumble an excuse about being tired.
“Nine-thirty,” I say.
“So you’ve got time!”
“Tyler’s expecting me back.”
He makes a face. “Oh, it’s like that.”
“It’s not like that.”
“So stay with me.”
His blue eyes are on mine, pleading with me. I feel like there’s something more going on here—something he hasn’t told me yet in all the time we’ve been sitting here and talking. I want to stay with him, but it’s not fair to Tyler—he worries when I’m out too late, even though I tell him not to. I’ve got to get back.
“Let’s head to the bus stop,” I say. “Maybe we can grab ice cream.”
He chews on his lip, as if contemplating how hard to push me. Finally, his shoulders sag. “Okay.”
It’s summertime, so even at seven in the evening, it’s still light out. Sharing a sidewalk with Liam is a bit of a challenge. The sidewalks in Manhattan are already not terribly wide, and on top of that, are broken up by trees planted on the side of the road and littered with dozens of pedestrians. The two of us are parting the crowd like the Red Sea, and every single person who passes has to gawk at us. There was even a blind guy with a white cane who turned to look at us—I guess he still had some vision.
But to be fair, people stare nearly as much when I’m with Tyler too.
“Maddie!” Liam gasps out of nowhere. “Maddie, look! It’s a sex store! We have to go in there!”
I turn my neck to see where Liam is pointing, which is at a store with grayed out windows and the words “Good Vibrations” written in script lettering over the door. There’s a neon “OPEN” sign on one of the grayed out windows.
“How do you know that’s a sex store?” I say.
“Um, it’s called Good Vibrations.”
“It could be a record store.”
“A record store? What is this—1975? Come on, it’s obviously a sex store.” He grins at me. “I haven’t been in one of those in a really long time.”
“Is that a big gap in your life?"
“Look, I’m just saying, sex stores are few and far between these days. Good Vibrations could be gone this time next year. Gone. And you’ll say to yourself, ‘I wish I had listened to Liam and gone in while I still could.’”
I’ve never been in a sex shop before and I’d be willing to bet he hasn’t either. Not that Liam’s any saint—I still remember overhearing Mrs. Murphy bemoaning to my mother when we were thirteen that she had found porn on Liam’s computer. I really wish his mother hadn’t relayed that story to my mom, because my mother was already lukewarm on Liam. After she found out about the porn, there was a strict rule that we had to stay out in the living room when he came over.
It was a pointless rule though. Liam never tried anything with me. He never even touched me.
Well, that’s not entirely true. But it was back when we were thirteen.
It also didn’t matter because I spent far more time at Liam’s house than he did at mine. He had Nintendo, and after doing my best with his controller, he saved up his money to buy me a special controller that you could operate with one hand. He was so excited when he gave it to me. Now you can stop sucking so bad, Maddie.
“We’re going inside,” Liam says decisively. “We’re going in the sex store, and I’m going to buy you some gummies shaped like penises.”
It’s hard to say no to Liam sometimes.
If people were staring at us on the street, it’s nothing compared to the looks we get in what turns out to be most definitely a sex store. Liam’s wheels immediately knock into a mannequin positioned on the ground, but it’s only the bottom half of a mannequin, and the legs are pointing straight up. A salesgirl rushes over to help him right the mannequin.
“Can I help you, sir?” she asks him. She’s looking between the two of us, trying to figure the whole thing out.
“Yes,” he says with a straight face. “We’re looking for dildos or strap-ons for men with extremely small penises, because Maddie here’s boyfriend is unfortunately not very well endowed.”
“Liam!” I hiss at him. I look at the salesgirl. “We don’t need that.”
“She’s being kind,” he sighs. “She definitely does. If you have anything for micropenises, that would be ideal.”
I feel a bit sorry for the salesgirl, who is standing there awkwardly. But then again, if you work in a sex shop, you’re sort of asking for it. “So… do you…?”
“We really don’t. He thinks he’s funny.” I glare at Liam, who is laughing into his fist. “But he’s not.”
“I’m a little funny,” he says as the salesgirl wanders off.
“Not even a little.”
We wander into the S&M area, which was never something I was into. Obviously, being a dominatrix is out for me since I can barely hold a whip, much less brandish one. And as for being a submissive—well, when I already need someone to help me to get in and out of bed, it takes some of the fun out of pretending. Liam seems fascinated by the whips and ball gags, and he pulls a pair of fishnet stockings off the shelf.
“I bet Tyler would like you in this,” he says.
“Hmm. I’m not so sure.”
“I would like you in this.”
He winks at me when he says it, which makes my stomach do a strange flip. There was a time when I was searching all of Liam’s words for hidden meaning, but that time is long since passed. He’s just being playful, that’s all.
I don’t buy the fishnet stockings. I don’t have the legs for it. There are plenty of girls in wheelchairs with great legs, but I don’t count myself as one of them. Of all my limbs, my legs are most severely affected by my cerebral palsy. My calves and thighs are stick-thin, the joints of my knees like giant balls attaching the two bones. I always stick with pants or skirts that go nearly down to my ankles. Even on the hottest days, you won’t catch me in shorts.
If I said anything along those lines to Liam, he’d try to convince me his own legs are worse. It’s not true though. His legs are actually functional—he could walk if he wanted, albeit with braces and crutches. I’ve never walked and I never will.
“If I buy the penis gummies, will you be happy?” I ask him.
He grabs the pushrims of his chair, shifting his weight. “Okay, but you have to eat… five of them.”
“Only if you eat five of them also.”
“I’m not gay, Maddie.”
“Okay, four then.”
He reaches out his hand and we shake on it. His fingers linger on mine for a moment longer than necessary and my heart skips in my chest. I still don’t know what he wanted to talk to me about tonight.
I love you, Maddie Colson.
I almost said it a dozen times tonight.
I almost said it a million times in my life.
I only actually said it once. And it fucked things up like you wouldn’t believe.
I don’t remember a lot from my early childhood—meeting Maddie was one of the first things I remember clearly. I remember how pretty she looked. Blond hair that curled around her chin. Big eyes. A dimple on her right cheek.
I didn’t like girls then. I mean, I was five. Girls had cooties, for the most part. But it was different with Maddie. I couldn’t shut up about her that year. My sisters started teasing me I had a crush on her. I didn’t even deny it. What was the point?
She was the only kid at school who used a wheelchair like I did. I’d never known anyone well who had a disability like mine—my parents made a point of getting me “integrated.” All the other kids treated me weird, but Maddie never did. She was like me. Any time I talked to her about things that frustrated me, she always understood.
I assumed Maddie and I would eventually get married. She was my best friend, I was absolutely in love with her, she was in a wheelchair just like I was, and she was conveniently located next door. It seemed like an obvious match.
It eventually dawned on me that Maddie didn’t think of me the same way I thought of her. I still remember being in her living room, watching a movie about a dog superhero when we were about eight or nine years old, and I said something like, “When we get married, we should have a dog.”
Maddie laughed. “No,” she said.
“Why not?” I frowned. “Dogs are great. You can train them to do anything. And we could probably get one of those helper dogs, I bet.”
She laughed again. “No, I meant we’re not going to get married.”
I was shocked. In retrospect, it’s embarrassing how surprised and upset I was when she said that. “Why not?”
She looked at me like I was being dumb. “Because we’re just not.”
I shifted in my chair, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. I always had a hard time keeping still as a kid. I got frustrated a lot by the things my body wouldn’t let me do—and on top of that, the things my mom wouldn’t let me do. Like going to the top of that giant hill on Pine street in my chair and going down as fast as I could. I didn’t get why I couldn’t do it in my chair when other kids were allowed to do it on skateboards. So I did it anyway.
But usually I was okay around Maddie. I got restless a lot, but it wasn’t as bad.
“Well,” I said, “I didn’t say we’d definitely get married, but… we might.”
Now her blue eyes were incredulous. “You don’t really think that, do you?”
“No,” I mumbled. “I was just kidding.”
That’s how I played it from then on. I pretended like I wasn’t in love with Maddie, because it was the only way we could keep being friends. But I had no intention of spending my life without her. Someday I would convince her we were more than just friends—I wasn’t just her honorary brother. I could be something more.
Then about seven years ago, that day came.
It’s hard to think about. Maddie and I never talk about it. But suffice to say, I managed to fuck it up expertly.
I’ve got to fix it. I’ve got to win her over.
This loser she’s dating—Tyler—he can’t give her what I can. He can’t love her as much as I do. It’s not possible. Yes, he is able-bodied, but so what?
If I can build a multi-million dollar company from scratch, I can convince Maddie Colson to be my wife.