All right, now that I've babbled on for a full paragraph, here is....
Trouble. This boy was trouble.
That was my first thought the day I laid eyes on Liam Murphy on my first day of kindergarten. It was something about his impish grin, about his wild reddish brown hair that stuck up in every direction even after his mother’s attempts to comb it with her fingers, or maybe it was the freckles that spilled down the bridge of his nose. Either way, I knew we were all in for it.
It all started with the school bus.
My older sister Laura had started school two years earlier, and I had enviously watched her board the big yellow school bus, joining her friends to exchange secrets and snacks during the fifteen minute drive to school. I had thought such a thing wasn’t a possibility for me, but then in the days leading up to my first day of school, my mother informed me I too would be traveling on a school bus every day, and I nearly whooped with excitement.
I should have known it wasn’t going to be what I thought.
Laura still boarded the regular big yellow school bus like always, but a full twenty minutes earlier, a different bus came for me. This one was short and fat, stopping right in front of our driveway, lowering a ramp for me to board.
There was absolutely nothing cool or fun about this bus.
When I saw it and realized I would not be going with Laura, and in fact, would be sitting on a bus with a bunch of other kids with disabilities, I burst into tears. I’m ashamed to admit it, in restrospect. In spite of my own obvious limitations, kids with disabilities scared me. I didn’t like to be around them, for reasons I couldn’t have explained at the time (although as an adult, I now have some theories).
I put up quite a fight—I screamed loud enough that neighbors came out of their houses to look—but in the end, they strapped me into the ramp and loaded me into the bus. The front seats were for kids who kids who could walk, and the back around was for kids like me, who needed a place to park our wheelchairs. The spot next to me was empty, but in front of me were two other kids strapped into power wheelchairs similar to my own. Neither of them said hello to me, and I reciprocated.
At the next stop two minutes later, the ramp in the back lowered again, which meant another child in a wheelchair would be boarding, presumably taking the spot next to mine. I heard the whir of the ramp and a minute later, a boy my age was wheeling himself into the empty space to my right.
A pretty redheaded woman in a fancy blouse and skirt was waiting on the bus to help strap him in—his mother, I assumed, based on a strong family resemblance. She kissed him, then tried to fix his hair while he squirmed and swatted her away.
“Be good, Liam,” she said in a voice I later came to recognize as Mrs. Murphy’s “warning voice.”
“Mom, go!” I could see he was desperate to have her leave, even though I had clung to my mother with my one good arm, begging her to take me with her. He endured one last wet sloppy kiss, then she left him.
I couldn’t help but look at this boy Liam. He was a cute kid, and in my own five-year-old girl sort of way, it was hard not to appreciate that. People would always say about him: “Look at that cute little boy in the wheelchair.” And then they’d make a face like it was such a shame. Liam hated the “what a shame” face, as he called it.
After the bus started up again, Liam could not seem to keep still. Well, he managed to sit quietly for about sixty seconds, but then he was all over the place. He was locking and unlocking the brakes on his chair, fiddling with his seatbelt, trying to open the window next to him, then shutting it again quickly when the driver screamed at him. Liam later got diagnosed with ADHD, but as soon as his parents got him involved in some wheelchair sports, his symptoms improved dramatically. He was just a kid who wanted to move more than his body would let him.
After about ten minutes of driving around, Liam reached into the backpack hanging off the back of his chair and pulled out a small ball. It was the last thing he should have been playing with on a bus, but it was clear he didn’t care. He tossed the ball up in the air about a foot, just low enough that the driver wouldn’t see it, then he caught it again.
He did this about five times, before he palmed the ball. Without warning, he turned the full impact of his bright blue eyes on me.
“Are you just going to stare at me?” he asked. “Or do you wanna play?”
I just stared at him.
He frowned at me. “Can you talk?”
“Yes,” I said defensively. I was able to talk, but my tongue didn’t always move the way I wanted it to and sometimes my words came out slurred. Years of speech therapy improved my intelligibility to the point where my problem is barely noticeable (I hope), but it was very noticeable back then. For that reason, I didn’t talk much.
“What’s your name?”
My name is actually Madeline. Named for a book series my mother had loved as a child about a Catholic boarding school in Paris where there lived “twelve little girls in two straight lines” and the youngest of the girls was Madeline. But nobody called me Madeline. Ever since I can remember, it was always Maddie.
“I’m Liam,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“I heard your mom call you that.”
Liam considered this. He seemed disappointed that the explanation was so simple, as if maybe he’d thought he was infamous. “Do you want to play catch?”
I felt a need to point out: “We’re on a bus.”
At five years old, Liam Murphy could not have cared less that he was on a bus in his desire to play catch. At twenty-five, I’m not sure he would have cared. Now that he’s hit thirty, maybe he would hold off on throwing balls around a moving vehicle.
“So?” he said.
“So we’re not s’posed to.”
He grinned that infamous Liam Murphy grin. “So?”
“We’ll get in trouble!”
“I never get in trouble,” Liam announced proudly. That didn’t entirely prove true over our childhood. Liam was afforded some amount of leeway due to being the kid in the wheelchair, but there were still limits. Limits he seemed determined to test on a daily basis. “C’mon. Let’s play.”
I looked down at my hands. My right was usable—it was the one that operated the joystick control on my chair and allowed me to scribble somewhat legible sentences. My left—curled and mostly useless. I’d never played catch before. I didn’t think it was possible, and certainly not in a moving vehicle.
“I can’t,” is all I managed.
Liam looked at my hands, assessing the situation and how to get around it. That was what my friendship with Liam boiled down to in a nutshell: him trying to figure out a way around our physical limitations to do what he wanted to do. And whatever he wanted to do was always something fun.
“You can throw me the ball,” he finally decided. “And I’ll catch it.”
And so it was decided. Liam stretched as much as he could to put the ball in my right hand, then got back in position to catch it. He punched his fist into his palm. “Okay, Maddie. Right down the plate.”
I threw the ball. It was an awful throw, and it was just short of a miracle that Liam managed to catch it before it went loose on the bus, smacked the driver in the back of the head, and gave him a concussion. After that throw, I assumed Liam would realize what a terrible idea this game of catch was, but I didn’t know him well enough at that point.
“Foul ball,” he said.
“Let’s try again.” He handed me the ball a second time. “This time aim at me. Okay, Maddie?”
As if I hadn’t been trying to do that the first time.
The second throw went better, and the third was even better still. When I threw it well, Liam hooted and hollered at me like I was Babe Ruth. It took a seventh throw before Liam failed to catch the ball, and it went loose in the aisle, rolling up and down until the driver pulled over and confiscated it. But it didn’t matter because the next day he had another ball, and the day after that, it was miniature paper airplanes sailing through the aisles, and the day after that it was a pocketful of rubber bands that was littering the back of the bus by the time we reached the school.
There were many things I grew to dislike about school, but thanks to Liam Murphy, riding on the school bus was always the best part of my day.
At least, that’s what my girlfriend Erin thinks. She must—why else would she drag me here? To goddamn confession. I’m supposed to be confessing, if you can believe that. I haven’t done this bullshit since I was a kid. I still remember my mom forcing me to go to confession as part of my First Communion. I didn’t want to go and I wasn’t the kind of kid who kept my mouth shut when I was forced to do something I didn’t want to do. I squirmed as she adjusted the tie around my collar and I protested: I haven’t done anything wrong!
I still remember her exact words: Yeah, right.
It’s been over ten years since my last confession and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to tell this priest. Confess what? I don’t break laws—at least, nothing of significance. Nothing that would get me worse than a traffic ticket. Have I really sinned? What the hell is a sin anyway?
As I wait to get called in to see the priest, I review the seven deadly sins in my head, hoping it’ll give me some ideas. Gluttony, sloth, wrath, pride, greed, envy, and lust. You know what’s fucked up? After all those years of church and Sunday school, I can only remember the seven deadly sins from that Brad Pitt movie, Se7en.
Gluttony. No, I’m okay there. I don’t do anything gluttonous. Sometimes I get so busy, I skip meals without realizing it.
Sloth. Yeah, no way. If there’s anything I’ve never been able to do, it’s keep still.
Wrath. Also a no. I never get angry, which pisses Erin off. Even that time I caught her texting with her ex-boyfriend, I didn’t get upset. I don’t get jealous—that’s not me.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I have gotten jealous before. Punch my fist into the wall kind of jealous. But not when it comes to Erin. And that’s probably the real reason she was so upset at me.
Shit, I need to stop analyzing my relationship with Erin. I’m thinking of sins to tell the priest. I don’t want him to report back to Erin that I didn’t take the whole thing seriously.
Pride? Well, maybe a little. But when the company I started with my own bare hands is kicking ass, is it really so wrong to feel proud? Is it really a sin? Come on. Catholics don’t get to have any fun.
Greed. Hell no. Money has never been important to me. That’s why I donate a bunch of my profits to charity every year. But because I want to. Not because the church tells me I have to donate ten percent of everything I make.
Envy. Again, no. It’s more like… wonder. I wonder sometimes what it’s like to be able to walk like everyone else. I can walk, but it’s nothing to write home about. It’s pathetic, actually. It takes braces and crutches, and makes me feel a million times more disabled than I do on wheels. My mother forced me to do it when I was a kid because it was “good exercise,” but the second I moved out, I stuffed my braces and crutches in the back of my closet.
Running also looks like it would be really fun. I could never do anything close to running. My life might be easier if I could do all those things—if someone gave me the option, I’d take it. Then again, I’ve lived like this my whole life. I can’t imagine things any other way. So it’s hard to get too broken up over it.
And last but not least…
Fine. I’m guilty of this one. I wouldn’t say I’m more guilty more than most men, but I’m equally guilty to most men. Which is a lot. What can I say—we’re all a bunch of horny toads. I’m worse though. I don’t lust more, but… well, not to sound prideful, but my success rate is really good. Better than average, I’ll bet.
For example: Erin. Good Catholic girl. She was a virgin when we started dating six months ago. She was a beautiful twenty-nine-year-old virgin. Determined to stay that way till she was married. That’s why she picked me—because in her head, I was safe. The guy in the wheelchair wasn’t getting into her pants. No way.
Now I’m fucking her.
I wonder if she confesses that to the priest. Does she tell him what I do to her? She has to, doesn’t she? I have sex with my boyfriend Liam, even though we’re not wed under God. He goes down on me, and he’s awesome. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Okay, I’m not certain she says that last part. I’d like to think so, but maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she cries and tells the priest that I’m sending her to hell. Except I’m pretty sure I’m not. I saved her. If not for me, she was going to be a thirty-year-old-virgin! She’s damn lucky I came along and fixed that shit.
I must feel guilty about it on some level though. Because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here in church, waiting to be called in to confession. I wouldn’t have let her drag me here.
The priest has emerged from the confessional room. He’s around sixty, with brown hair heavily peppered with gray. He’s dressed in black except for the white collar. The whole thing gives me dizzying flashbacks of going to church as a kid. After I moved out of my parents’ house, I vowed I’d never go back. Yet here I am.
“Hello, Father O’Brien,” I say. Then I clear my throat because my voice cracked. I’m nervous, apparently. I don’t know why I’m nervous.
When Erin first brought up the idea of going to confession, I thought I’d be going into one of those booths like I did as a kid, and I was relieved to discover from Erin that wasn’t the case. Those booths were always too small—I couldn’t turn my wheelchair around in them so I’d just have to face the wall. But this confessional is more like a small study. Much better.
Father O’Brien sits down behind a cheap, splintered wooden desk. The desk I sit in at my own office is orders of magnitude more expensive than his. Thinking about it makes me feel bad. Catholic guilt. Now I need to buy this priest a new goddamn desk to make myself feel better.
I park my wheelchair right in front of his shitty desk. He doesn’t say anything, just smiles encouragingly at me. When I was a kid, the priest at our church was Father Hogan. He always seemed so intimidating. Most people treated me overly nice because I was the kid in the wheelchair and they all felt sorry for me, but he didn’t. I always got the feeling Father Hogan could see inside my soul, and he wasn’t seeing anything good.
But Father O’Brien doesn’t bark at me, Speak up, boy! I don’t have all night! He just sits across from me, smiling encouragingly. In a way, that’s worse because I have no clue what I’m doing. I wish he’d tell me what to say.
I start by crossing myself—again, something I haven’t done in years. My mother does it all the time. Thanks to me. I’m nonstop trouble, unlike my older sisters, who “never gave her a single moment of grief.” (That’s bullshit, by the way—they just never got caught the way I did.) I spent half my childhood in the principal’s office. Mom was never even surprised to get that call from the school. Liam’s in trouble. Again.
“Bless me, Father,” I say, “for I have sinned.”
As he says a blessing for me, all I can think is, What the hell am I supposed to say now?
“It’s been ten years since my last confession,” I continue. Actually, more like fifteen. But who’s counting? Is it a sin not to confess for over a decade? Probably. A friend of mine in college who was thinking about a career in religion told me if you read the Bible carefully enough, technically you can’t even go to the bathroom.
“What made you come today?” Father O’Brien asks me.
I can’t suppress a smile. “My girlfriend made me.”
I don’t mention that my girlfriend’s name is Erin Turner. I don’t mention I know he’s told her he thinks of her as a daughter, because if that’s the case, he definitely wouldn’t like to know I deflowered her. I wonder if that daughter thing is even true. I wonder if that’s code for him wishing he could be the one to deflower her.
Christ, I’m not supposed to think these things about a priest. I feel guilty again. Now I’ll have to buy him a leather chair too, to replace that creaky one he’s sitting in.
“Anyway,” I say, because he doesn’t seem to have any comments on my being forced to come here, “I really don’t think I’ve done anything confession-worthy. I mean, I’m good. Mostly good.” He isn’t saying anything, so I do what I always do when I’m nervous, which is talk until I’ve said something dumb. “Okay, I’ve done things the church might consider sins. But I don’t consider them sins. They’re not… I mean, I don’t steal or do drugs or lie or… or murder people. I’m sorry, but I don’t consider sex with my girlfriend a sin. It’s not. It’s not a sin.”
Father O’Brien looks at me thoughtfully. I wonder if he’s ever going to speak or if he’s just going to stare at me.
“So that’s all.” I shrug, although my heart is racing. “I haven’t felt a need to sin. I guess I’m lucky.”
The priest looks surprised at my statement. Lucky. How can I say I’m lucky when I can’t walk? He thinks because I’m in this chair, by definition, I’ve got shitty luck. He doesn’t get it—not that I’m surprised. I don’t think of it as luck one way or the other. I was born this way. It’s who I am, who I’ve always been.
Father O’Brien shifts in his creaky chair and frowns at me. “What we consider sins can be very personal, aside from the obvious. What one person might consider a sin is different than what another might consider a sin.”
Right. That’s what I’m saying. I’m sinless.
“So the question is…” He leans forward so his gray eyes look into mine. His eyes are very wise-appearing. He’s not frightening in the same way as Father Hogan, but I’m worried he can see more about me than I’d like. “What in your life weighs on your conscience?”
He arches an eyebrow. “Are you certain of that, Liam?”
His wise gray eyes bore into me. I squirm in my chair and drop my own eyes. He’s right. I’ve sinned. I know exactly what’s been weighing on my conscience.
I have been dating Erin for six months.
I’ve taken her virginity. I’ve told her I loved her, which I believed to be true at the time.
No, that’s not true. I never really believed it. I don’t love her. I never have. And if I’m being honest with myself, I never will.
I’m in love with someone else. Someone who will never love me back. Not in the way I want her to.
And it’s ruining my goddamn life.
To be continued... (maybe)