I’m sitting first class on an airplane in LaGuardia. I’ve got the bulkhead seating, which means they let me wheel my chair right into the plane to my seat and I don’t have to sit in that narrow aisle chair to get to a seat in the rear. When I traveled with my parents as a kid, I always go put in that stupid aisle chair because we always flew coach and never got good seats. Between you and me, I think my mom liked it when I got loaded into that chair because it meant I couldn’t move on my own so I couldn’t cause trouble. It was a break for her.
So I planned this trip perfectly, but it doesn’t matter because two seconds from when I’m supposed to get off the plane, instead they’re telling me they can’t find my wheelchair.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Murphy.” The stewardess is a pretty girl named Jenny, who I would have tried to get the number of if I weren’t so focused on Maddie. “We’re trying to locate it now.”
I rub my eyes with the balls of my hand. I don’t need this shit right now. Against my better judgement, I agreed to meet Tyler and Maddie for dinner tonight, and I would have had plenty of time except that my flight from Austin was delayed two hours. And now on top of that, my wheelchair has apparently gone to Honolulu. (I don’t know this for sure, but it’s entirely possible.)
“So it definitely wasn’t on this plane?” I say.
She shakes her head. “No, it wasn’t. But there’s another flight landing soon that they think it might have been on.”
“Fuck,” I mutter.
“I’m so sorry.”
She’s sorry, but she doesn’t even understand how much this sucks. Other people don’t have to worry about their legs getting lost or smashed to smithereens when they take a plane. Maddie won’t fly because of this, and I don’t blame her. But I have to fly for work. Jack is great at the business end of stuff, but I’m the one who knows our product inside and out, and I’m good at selling it. So it’s got to be me. For now.
The flight was long and bumpy, and all I want to do is get off this plane. But now I have to wait for them to figure things out.
“Do you require a replacement wheelchair?” Jenny asks me.
What kind of dumb question is that? Does she think I’d be glued to my seat if there were any chance I could get up and move on my own power?
“Yes,” I say wearily. “That would be great.”
Jenny scurries off to find a chair for me, leaving me alone on the plane with just the guy cleaning the aisles. I can, actually, walk a little bit, but I hardly do it, and it requires ankle braces on both sides and forearm crutches. It hurts my shoulders and wrists and it’s really, really slow. There were a couple of years when my mother would try to get me to go to school with my braces and crutches, but it was a daily fight and she eventually gave up. She still used to make me walk every single day—it was a chore like having to brush my teeth. But when it came to tooth-brushing, I could just run my toothbrush under the sink and get away with not doing it. Not so with walking.
It’s not like I was lazy. I liked sports. A lot. When I was a little kid, my dad used to bring me along to my sisters’ soccer games and I’d watch them play with frustration. It looked like so much fun.
“Dad,” I said to him one day after my sister Jill scored a goal, “can I play soccer?”
He snorted. “And how exactly would you do that?”
His words stung. But he was right—I couldn’t run across the field like Jill and I couldn’t kick a ball. Obviously, I couldn’t play soccer. It made me feel like shit watching the game, knowing I’d never be able to play.
It was my mom who finally got me involved in some local wheelchair sports for kids, under the guidance of my pediatrician. It was everything I wanted.
But I still hated trying to walk. Most of the time, when I was zipping around in my chair, I didn’t even feel disabled. After all, I was one of the best kids on our basketball team—I was a good, but not great athlete. But when I was struggling with each step, I felt my limitations.
When Jenny comes back with a wheelchair, my heart sinks. It’s one of those foldable chairs and it’s worse than I expected. It’s so old, the fabric on the backrest is ripping. The armrests are way too high and it’s got two big handles sticking out of the back. The footrests are all wonky—one is three inches higher than the other. I don’t want to sit in that thing. But what choice do I have? I’m not walking out of here.
“Do you need help, sir?” Jenny asks me.
“No, I got it.”
But she hovers over me to make sure I’m okay, and it’s a good thing she does. The goddamn chair doesn’t lock, so every time I try to transfer, it starts sliding out from under me. Jenny eventually has to hold it steady for me so I can make the transfer. I don’t know how the hell I’m going to get into my car. I should probably ask someone to come with me to help, except my pride doesn’t want to.
I wonder what it’s like to be able to get on and off a plane without all this hassle. I can’t imagine it.
The only silver lining in all this is I flew with one of my backup chairs. In all honesty, I have a lot of wheelchairs in my home. Maddie thinks it’s funny because she doesn’t collect them the way I do, and hers can’t be stashed away as easily as mine. I’ve got five, which I don’t think is that many, considering they’re the only way I can get around. There’s my everyday chair that’s currently in the living room of my apartment. There’s my chair I use for sports, even though I haven’t had much time for that lately. There’s the spare I lost today. Then two other spares. And also a hand-cycle, so technically, I suppose that’s six.
What can I say—I don’t like the idea of being without one. I also have about ten pairs of sunglasses.
“Do you need further assistance?” Jenny asks anxiously, after I’m securely in their piece of shit chair. I’m trying my best to get my feet in a good position in the plates.
I need help getting into my car.
I should say it but I don’t. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like I haven’t fallen lots of times while trying to transfer. Besides, I’m got to get going if I want to make this dinner with Maddie and the boyfriend.
“Yeah,” I say. “You can tell the airline they’re paying for my first class flight. And also, tell them if they don’t locate my goddamn chair by the end of the day, I’m calling a lawyer.”
Jenny smiles weakly. “Of course.”
Maybe next time they’ll be a little more careful with a guy’s wheelchair.
Liam is late for dinner.
Tyler is looking at his watch, a pinched expression on his face, because he hates it when people are late. He already wasn’t thrilled about having dinner with Liam and now this is becoming another data item in the list of reasons he dislikes my best friend. Just what I need right now.
“He’s late,” Tyler says unnecessarily.
“It’s probably Erin’s fault,” I say.
I doubt that, actually. Erin is pretty perfect, so it follows that promptness would be a quality she possesses. Liam is the one who can never manage to be on time. In school, he pushed the limits of what he could get away with. Most teachers were sympathetic about the fact that he had to wait for the elevator, but he milked it, sometimes showing up halfway through the class.
And he definitely kept his previous girlfriends waiting a lot. Erin once commented affectionately to me, “Is this guy ever on time?” I neglected to mention that it was rare for Liam to keep me waiting.
The door to the restaurant swings open and my shoulders sag with relief when Liam wheels inside. He spots us right away, and pushes over to us. Unlike me, Liam grabs onto tables and chairs when he’s propelling himself through a crowded space to make it easier for himself. As he gets closer, I see he’s made an effort tonight—instead of his usual jeans and T-shirt, he’s wearing a blue dress shirt that brings out the color in his eyes and makes him look achingly handsome. Instead of jeans, he’s worn khaki slacks, but they’re loose-fitting. He won’t admit to being self-conscious about his legs, but he always wears baggy pants.
“Sorry I’m late,” Liam says when he notices the disapproving look on Tyler’s face.
“Where’s Erin?” I ask.
“She’s not coming.”
“Oh.” I frown. “Is… is everything okay?”
He nods, but doesn’t say anything more, instead signaling to our waitress. The girl who brought us our drinks is short and busty with blond hair—Liam’s type. He’ll probably flirt with her like crazy.
“How is Erin doing?” Tyler asks, because as much as he dislikes Liam, he can’t dislike Erin.
“She’s… fine.” Liam smiles crookedly. “Same old. You know.”
He nods. “How long have you two been together now?”
“Uh… six months.”
Tyler brightens. “Hey, maybe you and Erin can be part of Nina’s article!”
My heart sinks. I really wish he wouldn’t have brought up that stupid article. I told him the day after our dinner with Nina and Claude that I didn’t want to do it, but he said it would be good publicity for his start-up. But I really, really wish he wouldn’t bring it up in front of Liam, especially since I’m trying to get the two of them not to hate each other.
“What article?” Liam asks.
“My friend Nina is doing an article for her magazine about couples that are inspiring,” Tyler explains.
Liam raises an eyebrow. “Inspiring?”
I shake my head at Liam, beseeching him not to overreact to this.
Tyler smiles. “Well, you know what I mean.”
Liam does not return the smile. “No, I really don’t. Could you explain it?”
“Well,” he says, “it will talk about how Maddie and I met, and then about all the little things I do for her in our relationship.”
Liam makes a sound that’s something between a “huh” and a snort. “Maddie always seemed pretty independent to me.”
Tyler laughs. “Well, you never dated her.”
“No,” Liam agrees. “I haven’t.”
Liam is giving me a look that’s making me uncomfortable. I know exactly what he’s thinking, and he’s right, but what can I say? If I take his side instead of my boyfriend’s, that won’t result in anything good.
“Anyway.” Tyler takes a sip from his glass of wine. “Maybe you and Erin could be part of the article as well as an inspiring couple.”
I hold my breath, hoping Liam won’t say anything that will make Tyler hate him more. It’s a long few seconds, but finally, he just shakes his head and says, “No. We can’t.”
Tyler grins. “Why not? Camera shy?”
“Actually,” Liam says, “Erin and I broke up.”
Even though it doesn’t actually, it feels like all the noise within the restaurant suddenly comes to a screeching halt. My mouth falls open. Liam and I spent an entire evening together and he never told me this tidbit. How could he fail to mention that they were broken up? That should have been the first thing he said when we met the other day!
But part of me isn’t entirely surprised. Liam wasn’t that into Erin, even though she was blond and gorgeous. He never seemed that excited about her. And he sometimes complained about her being “kind of a religious nut job.” It makes me sad that Liam has never been in a really good relationship.
And there’s a tiny part of me that wonders if it could be my fault.
But no. That’s silly. There’s no chance he’s still thinking about what happened with us all those years ago.
“Oh.” A crease appears between Tyler’s brows. “I’m sorry to hear that, Liam.”
“Well,” Tyler says, “I’m sure someone else will come along for you eventually.”
“Gee, thanks,” Liam mutters.
“Really,” Tyler goes on. “Don’t get down about this. There’s someone for everyone. Look at me and Maddie.”
A dark expression comes over Liam’s face, which makes me flinch. He opens his mouth, and I’m certain he’s gearing up to tell Tyler off, but then our waitress materializes at the table with a big smile on her face. Liam looks up at her and sees how pretty she is, and his anger seems to dissipate.
“I see the rest of the party has arrived,” the waitress, whose nametag says Michelle, says with that cheery smile. It looks like a genuine smile, but it’s hard to believe someone could genuinely be that happy while waiting tables. Not that I would know, considering that is one of many jobs I could never do. “Can I get you anything to drink?”
Liam turns his blue eyes on her and smiles. That smile. I can see her melting a bit. “You absolutely can, thank you. What red wines do you recommend?”
“My personal favorite is the Merlot.”
“Well, I’m sure you know best.” He winks at her. “Can you please bring me a glass of Merlot?”
“I’d like one too,” I speak up.
“Maddie, your medications,” Tyler says in a low voice.
“It’s fine,” I hiss at him. There are no medications I’m on that absolutely can’t be mixed with alcohol. I shouldn’t get drunk, but a glass of wine once or twice a week is fine.
“It’s not fine. It’s irresponsible.”
Michelle hesitates, looking between the two of us. “Um… So should I bring the wine or…?”
“No, you should not,” Tyler snips.
As Michelle leaves with our drink orders, Liam stares at me, his mouth hanging open. I look down at my lap, praying he keeps his mouth shut. I know what he’s thinking, but he’s interpreting the whole thing wrong. Tyler is only trying to keep me from drinking because he loves me. I disagree with what he’s doing, but I know his heart is in the right place.
I wish Liam could understand that.
Is this guy fucking kidding me?
Who is he to tell Maddie what she is and isn’t allowed to drink? She’s a responsible adult. A hell of a lot more responsible than I am. If she wants some wine, she should be allowed some wine.
And it’s not the only thing tonight that’s making me uneasy.
I’ve been friends with Maddie basically my whole life. So I know very well what she needs help with and what she doesn’t. Unfortunately, she isn’t completely independent and she never will be. She’s got a right arm that works fairly well, but even that isn’t perfect. Her left doesn’t work at all. Her legs are about as functional as mine are.
So when Maddie and I are together, I’ll sometimes give her a little bit of help with the stuff she needs, but it’s not much. She manages pretty well with her right arm and her teeth. I hate people forcing help on me with things I’m perfectly capable of doing myself, I won’t do that to her.
That’s how I know how much she must hate Tyler cutting up her burger for her. Maddie’s capable of holding and eating a burger without help, except on her worst days. I also don’t like the way he picks up her napkin and tucks it into her collar without asking. Like it’s a bib. There’s no way Maddie likes that.
But I keep my mouth shut, which is an act of incredible willpower. Twenty year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Sticking up for Maddie is like breathing for me. Nothing made me madder than when someone was giving her a hard time.
There was some point when I realized I was doing it more for me than I was doing it for her. It was probably during junior year of high school, when I noticed this popular football player kid named Andy kept asking Maddie to copy her math homework every day. It bothered me a lot, because he’d be all nice to her like she was his friend, but then I overheard him bragging about it to his friends. She has all the right answers. She’s smarter than she looks. Or sounds.
His comment made me so goddamn angry. The truth is that when I first met Maddie, her speech wasn’t the best. I could understand everything she said, but not everyone could. Sometimes I’d have to tell people what she was saying. But her parents got her a lot of speech therapy. I mean, every minute she’d have that therapist interrupting us to work with her. Maddie worked really hard at it, like she did at everything. Sometimes we’d practice together, going through the sounds she was supposed to work on enunciating more clearly. And by high school, her speech was almost perfect.
She’d worked so hard. It made me furious he could make fun of her for that, especially when she was helping him. So the next time Andy asked Maddie for her homework, I interceded.
“Quit taking advantage of Maddie,” I snarled at Andy, who could have kicked the shit out of me if he wanted to. He was a big guy and I was… well, I was a kid in a wheelchair. I was scrappy, but I wouldn’t have had a chance against Andy. But those kinds of things never bothered me.
“Shut up, Murphy,” Andy muttered. He probably would have been more of an asshole to me, but he didn’t want to risk Maddie not giving him the homework.
“I don’t mind, Liam,” Maddie said softly.
“It’s the principle of the thing,” I insisted. “Maddie shouldn’t have to do your work for you.”
Andy whipped his head around to glare at me. “Look who’s talking! You copy from Maddie more than anyone does!”
He was right. I’d never even thought about it before. But after that, I never copied from Maddie again. I’d like to say it inspired me to do my homework more regularly, but it didn’t. I just got a lot more zeroes.
In any case, I’d love to tell Tyler off, but Maddie is giving me a look like she doesn’t want me to, so I keep my mouth shut. If I stick up for her when she doesn’t want me to, I’m no better than he is.
“So how come you didn’t tell me about Erin the other night?” Maddie asks me.
“I don’t know,” I mumble. “I didn’t want to get into it. We said no relationship talk, remember?”
She frowns at me, her brows knitting together in a way I’ve always thought was really cute. “I thought you liked her a lot.”
“I did, but…” I can’t have this conversation in front of her boyfriend. “I liked her, but she wasn’t the one. You know?”
“Wait a minute,” Tyler interrupts us. “You broke up with her? With Erin?”
I don’t know whether I want to laugh or punch him in the nose. A little of both. I can’t blame him entirely—Erin is gorgeous. Tyler probably couldn’t get a girl who looks like her, and he’s baffled that I not only got a girl who looked like her, but I then dumped that girl. I’ve blown his mind.
Maybe he needs to see exactly what I can do.
Our waitress Michelle scurries over to us with our drinks balanced on a circular tray. She’s very pretty with the blond hair I’ve always been drawn to since the day I saw Maddie on that bus, and her boobs are straining against the fabric of her tight black T-shirt. I have no interest in her, but what I am interested in is proving a point.
I lift my eyes and flash a smile at Michelle as she places my glass of wine down in front of me. Girls like it when I smile at them like that. I don’t entirely get it based on what I’ve seen in the mirror, but I know it works. “Thank you so much.”
Her cheeks color slightly. “My pleasure. Do you know what you’d like to order?”
I haven’t even cracked open my menu. I push it away. “You were right on the money with this Merlot. What would you recommend?”
She whips out her order pad and pencil. “The sea bass is supposed to be awesome.”
“Have you tried it?”
She giggles. “I sampled it.”
“I think the salmon is better.”
She’s smiling at me. Not at the table—at me. When I was younger, I used to work myself into a state of high anxiety any time I tried to ask a girl out. I was sure most of them took one look at my wheelchair and ruled me out right off the bat. I figured asking would just be embarrassing for both of us.
But as I got older, I realized it wasn’t entirely true. Well, I’m not going to lie—some women don’t want me because of my disability. But on the other hand, sometimes it works for me. Women see me as nonthreatening and cute. Especially a pretty waitress, who is used to sleazy guys hitting on her all day long.
It seems to be working on Michelle, so I turn up the charm. “You’re pretty into fish,” I say, holding eye contact. “Don’t you like a nice steak?”
She grins back at me. “I certainly do.”
“So how is the steak here?”
“Well, I’ll be honest,” she says, “Porter’s down the street has the best steak. You should check it out sometime.”
“Down the street.” I raise an eyebrow. “You mean up on 26th Street?”
“Sort of.” She taps her pen against her chin. “I could show you sometime. If you’d like…”
Wow, that was even easier than I thought.
I beam at her, giving her my best “nice guy” look. “That would be fantastic, Michelle.”
Tyler’s mouth is hanging open as Michelle walks away. He can’t believe I got the promise of a date with an attractive waitress who probably wouldn’t have given him the time of day. I shrug at him and smile. And that’s how it’s done, son.