I don’t know how or why, but somehow I am cutting out snowflakes from colored paper.
Shannon is in charge of making the decorations for some holiday fundraiser at the elementary school, so she enlisted my help to make snowflakes while the kids play together in Katie’s room. We’re supposed to make two-hundred of them. I’ve only made ten and I feel like I’m going to vomit if I make even one more snowflake.
My head isn’t in the game. I keep thinking about Jeremy sticking up for me to that asshole who insulted me. Telling me he wanted my phone number. The way his eyes lit up when I gave it to him. His shy smile. The way he was nearly walked out the door without his order after promising to call me. It was flat out adorable.
Now it’s eight o’clock and he hasn’t called yet, but I’m certain he will. Although in all honesty, I would have thought he’d have called by now. It’s making me nervous that he hasn’t.
“Um,” Shannon says, “that’s a very creative snowflake you’re making, Noelle.”
I look down at the piece of red paper in my hand. I completely butchered it.
“Sorry,” I say. “Let me start over.”
She arches a brow at me. “You seem a little distracted, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Well…” I still don’t know Shannon all that well, but I’m dying to tell someone about my crush. “It’s this guy I met at the diner…”
“Ooh!” She puts down her snowflake and claps her hands together. “Tell me!” When she sees me hesitate, she adds, “Please? My marriage is so freaking boring. I need to live vicariously through you.”
“There’s not much to tell… yet.” I chew on my lip. “I’ve seen him in the diner a few times and he’s really hot. But not, like, in an obvious way. He’s sort of… um, dorky hot.”
“Dorky hot?” Shannon giggles like we’re teenagers comparing notes on our crushes.
“Yeah, you know what I mean.” I smile at her. “He wears glasses. He does something in computers. But at the same time, he’s sexy as hell. He’s got these eyes that are… and oh my God, this incredibly sexy scar…”
“What celebrity does he look like?” she asks.
She nods. “Yeah, who’s his celebrity double?”
“Uh…” I think for a minute. “Maybe… Ryan Gosling?”
She sucks in a breath. “Oh my God, he’s really hot. I loved him in Deadpool.”
“I think that’s Ryan Reynolds.”
“Are you sure?”
Shannon huffs. “God, who can keep all these Ryans straight? But anyway, they’re both hot. He sounds great.”
“Yeah…” I avert my eyes. I don’t know why I didn’t mention the fact that Jeremy walks with a crutch. Maybe I don’t want to see the judgmental look in her eyes. She wouldn’t get it.
“So… have you been out with him yet?”
“He finally asked for my phone number today.” I chew on my thumbnail before quickly pulling it away—I don’t want to flaunt my bad habits in front of my new friend. “He promised he’d call tonight, so…”
So why hasn’t he called? What’s he waiting for?
“He’ll definitely call,” she assures me.
As if on cue, my phone buzzes within my purse. Shannon laughs as I practically leap out of my chair in my haste to get to it. I see an unfamiliar local number pop up, and my stomach flips.
“Hello?” I say in a casual voice that belies the fact that I nearly face planted in my eagerness to answer the phone.
“Uh, hey.” It’s him. Oh my God, it’s him. I am thirty-seven years old, and all of a sudden, I feel sixteen again. “Noelle?”
“This is she,” I say. Shannon rolls her eyes.
“It’s Jeremy.” He hesitates. “Uh, you know, from the diner and… uh, the cereal boxes? You, um, gave me your number…?”
“You’re going to have to be a lot more specific than that,” I say. “I give lots of men my phone number every day, and I can’t be expected to remember all of their names.”
Shannon pulls a face at me as I wave goodbye to her and step out in the hallway. I like her, but I’m not going to have this conversation in front of her. No way.
“Well,” he says. “I’m about five foot eleven, I’ve got blue eyes, and I’m devastatingly handsome.”
“Blue-green eyes,” I correct him. I’ll never forget that color.
“Oh, so you do remember me.”
“Maybe a little.”
He laughs, but it comes out sounding strangled and then turns into a cough. And then a few more coughs.
“Are you okay?” I ask him. The truth is, I don’t know why he walks with that crutch—for all I know, he has very serious health issues.
“I’m fine,” he says quickly. “I’m just…”
“Just…” He gives that strangled laugh again. “Just nervous, I guess. Sorry, I’m… I don’t do this much.”
“Do what? Call women on the phone?”
“Well, yeah,” he admits. “Women, men, other human beings in general. I probably talk on the phone to the delivery guy at China Pearl more than anyone else in the world.”
“Oh, I love Ming!” I say. “Do you know if he got his SAT score back?”
“Not yet. Next week.” He laughs. “Wow, I can’t believe I know that.”
God, it’s nice to talk to someone else who craves adult human contact enough to have prolonged conversations with the Chinese food delivery guy. Although to be fair, Ming is really chatty. He and I would probably be dating now if he wasn’t still in high school.
“You know what’s rough?” he says. “When I call up a restaurant to get my food delivered, and they already know who I am and what I want before I even finish my sentence. And then they sound all proud of themselves for recognizing how predictable I am.”
“Uh, yeah!” I say. “Well, obviously, the only good thing to order from Luigi’s is the chicken roll.”
“No, the sausage roll.”
“I’m fairly sure the sausage roll is superior,” Jeremy says. “But maybe next time we both get Luigi’s, I could give you half of my sausage roll and you could give me half of your chicken roll.”
I smile to myself. “That sounds reasonable.”
He’s quiet for a moment. “So… what do you say?”
“Do you, um…” He takes a shaky breath. “Do you want to go with me to Luigi’s?”
He sounds so nervous. It’s absolutely adorable. And it makes me feel better about how nervous I am. My fingers are tingling with excitement. Or it could be because I’m gripping the phone so hard.
“That sounds great,” I say.
I hear him let out the breath. “Oh. Great! That’s…” His voice lowers a notch. “Great.”
“Yeah,” I say. I have this wonderful, excited feeling in my chest that I haven’t felt since… God, maybe since Greg and I were first dating. Jeremy gets me so excited. He’s all I can think about lately.
Except I realize that I haven’t been entirely fair to him. There are things about me he should probably know going into the date, things that might make a difference to him. Although I’m enjoying our flirtation so much, I don’t want to ruin it.
“Listen,” I say, “there’s something you should probably know about me before we… you know…”
“I haven’t been out on a date since I got divorced.”
There’s a sharp intake of breath on the other line. “You’re divorced?”
My heart speeds up. “Is that a problem?”
“No,” he says quickly. “I mean, I am too.”
He is? That surprises me a lot. He seems like the kind of guy who marries for keeps. Then again, I know from experience that any marriage can fall apart. I wonder if there was a Dina in his life.
“For how long?” I ask.
“Four years. How about you?”
“Separated a year, divorced for six months.”
“Only six months?” His voice wavers. “That’s pretty recent.”
“I’m over it,” I say. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Also…” I chew on my lip. I am extremely worried about this next confession but there’s no point in hiding it. “I have a son.”
He’s quiet for a moment. I’ve heard a lot of guys aren’t excited to date a woman who has children. If my having a child is a deal breaker, I need to know it now. No point in wasting time. “Oh,” he finally says.
“Do you… like kids?”
“Of course I do,” he says. “I like kids a lot.” He pauses. “I mean, not a lot. Not more than most people. I like them… you know, a normal amount.”
“You don’t have any though?”
“No, we never got around to it.” He’s quiet for a moment. “We wanted to.”
I wonder if the end of Jeremy’s marriage had something to do with the fact that he can’t move his right arm or leg very well. What sort of woman would dump a guy for something like that? Then again, how many women cope well with tragedy?
“I’m sorry,” I finally say, because I’m not sure what else to say.
“Don’t be,” he says quickly. “It’s better we didn’t. I mean, can you imagine me trying to chase down a kid? Impossible.”
I smile at the phone. “You could have put a leash on him.”
“Oh Christ, are you one of those parents who puts a leash on your kid?”
“My son is eight. If I put a leash on him, I’d be a psychopath.”
“I was on the street a few days ago, and I saw this woman with a kid who was at least eight, and she had—I swear to God—a rope tied around the kid’s waist that she was holding onto.”
“Yeah, that sounds like a legit leash.”
“I wanted to cut the rope and yell at the kid, ‘Run!’”
I laugh. “I would have been really impressed if you did that.”
“Logistically, it would have been tricky,” he says. “I mean, first of all, it’s not like I walk around with a pair of scissors in my pocket.”
“You don’t carry a pair of scissors in your pocket?” I say. “Gee, then you really must have been glad to see me.”
Jeremy bursts out laughing. I got a tiny laugh out of him here and there, but this is the first belly laugh he’s given me.
“Well,” he finally says, “I am usually pretty glad to see you.”
We’re both quiet for a moment. I wish he were right next to me. If he were, it would be very hard not to kiss him right now.
“How about Saturday night for Luigi’s?” I ask.
“You’re not busy on Saturday night?”
“Well, aside from my hot date with Ming’s delivery truck.”
“All right then,” he says. “Let’s do it.”
Noelle agreed to go out with me.
I can’t stop thinking about her, even after I hang up the phone. Her dark hair, her throaty voice—even her crow’s feet are really hot. She’s the sexiest woman I’ve met in years. I want to jump up and down at the thought of my upcoming date with her, if only that were possible.
It was embarrassing how nervous I got over the phone. I was tripping on my words, and I was scared I sounded like a guy who’d had a stroke. If that was the case, she’d turn me down. No woman would want that. Then again, she accepted my useless right arm and my forearm crutch. I didn’t tell her about my stroke, but she had to guess it was something along those lines.
I’ve been trying to convince myself I didn’t miss women, but now that I’ve got this date on the horizon, it makes me realize how lonely I’ve been for the opposite sex. Taylor’s been gone for over four years, but our romantic relationship ended on the day I got the bleed in my brain. The morning before that aneurysm burst marked the last time Taylor and I had sex.
When I woke up in the hospital, I didn’t feel like the same person. Speaking was difficult for me, I couldn’t swallow even the spit that was in my own mouth, and I couldn’t move the right side of my body. When Taylor looked at me, it was with a mix of sympathy and tears. That was how just about everyone looked at me those days.
I improved a lot in rehab, but when I went home, I still needed her help for so much. I needed help to shower and dress myself, to get in and out of my wheelchair, and obviously cooking and shopping were out of the question. I could walk a little, but I mostly used the wheelchair then, which was difficult to propel with only one working arm (although I used my left leg to help me) so Taylor usually pushed me if we went anywhere outside of the house. I could eat normal food again, but sometimes it still dripped out of the right side of my mouth. My speech still sounded slow and not quite me.
But Taylor hadn’t changed at all. She was still as hot as the day I met her, and as my brain recovered, my libido returned. I wanted her. When we kissed those days, it was just quick pecks. I was ready for more than that.
One night when I was home about a month, we were lying in bed together, and I reached for Taylor with my good arm. I ran my fingers down her hip and her thigh, hoping this might lead to… well, what it used to lead to before. Taylor and I always had a healthy sex life. More than healthy—sometimes it felt like we were going for some kind of world’s record.
But Taylor jerked away from me with wide eyes. “What are you doing?”
My face burned. “I thought we could… you know…”
“Are you serious?” She shook her head. “The last time we did that, you had a stroke.”
“But the doctors fixed it,” I pointed out. They clipped the aneurysm that caused the bleed in my brain. I didn’t entirely know what that meant, but as far as I understood, it meant the aneurysm wouldn’t bleed again.
“Fixed it?” She inched away from me on the bed. “Are you serious? You can barely move your right arm or leg. Imagine if it happened again! You don’t want to risk that, do you?”
“No, but…” I bit my lip. “I want to have sex with my wife.”
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea.” Taylor turned away from me to stare at the ceiling. “Also, I’m really tired.”
“And you’ve got a headache, right?”
There was a sarcastic edge to my voice. That didn’t take long to come back.
“Listen,” Taylor said, “I do everything around here. I do all the shopping, cooking, cleaning. I got you dressed today.” She paused. “I helped you use the commode.”
That last one hurt. I was still nervous doing transfers on my own, so yes, I asked her help for that. We had a commode by the bed because my wheelchair didn’t fit in the bathroom, so not only did she have to help me get onto it, but she had to empty it out for me.
I’m sure that didn’t make her feel overcome with lust for me.
“I’ll transfer myself from now on,” I said.
“Jeremy,” she sighed. “You don’t have to…”
“No, I can do it.” I could. I was nervous about it, but I’d been doing therapy at home twice a week to work on my transfers, among other things, and even though my right arm was still at zero, my right leg had gotten stronger. “I need to start doing more for myself.”
And after that, I pushed myself to the limits. Over the next several months, I transitioned to using my wheelchair less and less. Even though it took me over an hour every morning, I learned to dress myself again. I was able to shower with the tub bench set up for me. I got better, but every time I reached for Taylor, she had an excuse.
About a year after my stroke, the doctors told me my strength was as good as it would ever be. By that point, Taylor and I were little more than roommates who slept in the same bed. We talked politely, but didn’t joke around the way we used to. There was no flirting. There was no sex. Taylor had lost all her attraction to me.
So I wasn’t surprised when six months later, she told me she’d met someone else.
I’m not going to lie. I begged her to stay. I asked her if there was any way we could fix things. She was the love of my life—the only woman I’d ever loved. How could our marriage be over?
But somehow, it was.
I still think about her, although less than I used to. I hate to admit this, but for a good two years after our divorce, I still used to call her just to hear her voice. We’d talk for about twenty minutes, and she’d be so patronizing that I’d feel much worse after than call than I did before. Eventually, I learned my lesson and stopped calling. She’s moved on—new husband, new life. I should move on too.
I struggle back to my feet, and the thought flits through my head that Taylor’s new husband doesn’t need a crutch to get out of a chair, but I push it aside. Fuck them. I’m going to make myself a sandwich.
I limp in the direction of the kitchen, but before I get there, I see something scurry below my feet. Something small. And white.
Holy shit. That was a mouse.
I grip the handle of my crutch, trying not to lose my balance. I’ve got a mouse in my apartment. A fucking mouse. I don’t need this now. I can’t invite a woman over here if I’ve got a rodent problem.
I slowly walk to the kitchen, and that’s when I see the mouse. He’s discovered some crumbs of bread on the kitchen floor and is calmly chowing down. He looks up when he sees me but doesn’t scurry away. Maybe he knows I’m no threat—a guy with one arm and one leg can’t catch a mouse.
Taylor and I had a mouse once. I managed to corner the damn thing and trapped it under a bowl. But Taylor didn’t want to kill him, and I wasn’t crazy about the idea either. So we released the mouse outside, into the wild (or into the sewer, as the case may be).
I don’t see how I could possibly do something like that now. I can’t get down on my knees. (Or maybe I could, but getting up again would be hard.) I don’t think I can catch this mouse on my own. I’ll have to call Luis.
I spy the large Tupperware container Fanny used to bring me the casserole the other day. I pick it up with my left hand and lean my crutch against the kitchen counter. I can walk a few steps without it. That’s all I need.
I drop the Tupperware over the mouse. He notices what I’m doing just a second too late, and bam, he’s trapped. I grab a pot and put it on top of the Tupperware, to make sure he won’t overturn it. I have no idea how strong mice are. I know ants can lift some huge percentage of their weight, so why not mice?
I’ve managed to trap the mouse, but now what? I don’t want to kill him, and I can’t get rid of him the way I did all those years back, when I was still able-bodied.
I’ve got to call Luis.
Twenty minutes later, Luis is in my apartment, smirking at the pot piled on top of the Tupperware. I don’t know what’s so goddamn funny. I caught the mouse, didn’t I? I deserve a freaking medal.
Luis takes the cover of the Tupperware and slides it underneath, effectively trapping the mouse. It’s something I could never do on my own. Also, I feel bad about Fanny’s Tupperware. I hope she understands.
“We should probably put some mouse traps in the apartment,” I tell Luis.
“I don’t think we need to,” Luis says. “This is Henry’s mouse.”
My mouth falls open. “What?”
“Henry,” he repeats. “You know, that little boy in 5H? He lost his mouse a few days ago.”
“Are you kidding me?” The heat rises in my collar. I just spent the better part of an hour dealing with this goddamn mouse, and now I find out it’s because of that kid with the ball? I bet he put this mouse in the hallway when I had my door open, just to freak me out. It’s obvious to him I don’t get around so easily, so he probably figured I wouldn’t know what the hell to do.
This was probably real funny to him—the crippled guy has to deal with a mouse in his apartment. That kid has no clue. He doesn’t know what it’s like to get out of breath walking the length of a city block. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be scared of falling with every step. He’s probably got two loving parents, maybe a sibling or two, and in a week, he’ll have a pile of presents under his Christmas tree. Meanwhile, whenever I think of Christmas, I feel dizzy and nauseous.
“I’ll bring the mouse back to him, Mr. Grieder,” Luis says. “I’m sure he’ll be very happy.”
Yeah. I’m sure he will.
After Luis leaves, I can’t stop fuming. That kid let a goddamn mouse loose in my apartment. I can’t just let him get away with this shit. I don’t care if that makes me Mr. Wilson. I don’t care if I’m Scrooge. I don’t even care if I’m a grumpy old Grinch.
I grab my crutch and stomp out in the hallway to apartment 5H. The hallway is carpeted, which is not my favorite thing to walk on. Carpeting loves to snag my toes. I’ve got lots of experience walking on this particular carpet, but right now, I’m so mad, I’m almost shaking. Not a good combination.
And naturally, 5H is all the way at the end of the hall, around a bend. Isolated and quiet. Lucky them.
I reach out my left hand to ring the doorbell. I hear the “ding-dong” sounding inside the apartment. Then I rap on the door too for good measure.
I look down at my right arm, which has tightened up so much, my fist is nearly at my throat, frozen in place. My right leg is spasming, making it hard for me to stand. I don’t exactly look intimidating.
So it’s almost a relief when nobody answers.
I’m sure Henry’s family has a healthy social life. I’m sure they’re not sitting home every night like I am, watching episodes of Walking Dead or Modern Family.
But they’re going to find out what a brat their little kid is. I’ll make sure of that.
To be continued....