It was better when I was sitting alone.
Of course, I wish the punch I was drinking had some alcohol in it. At our prom, somebody spiked the punch, but nobody has done it here. Now that we’re old enough to drink, there’s nothing to drink. How are we supposed to get through a fucking reunion without any alcohol? This is just cruel.
Anyway, I was sitting alone for about 15 minutes when Courtney Taylor slid into the seat next to me. Courtney was a cheerleader, so of course I knew her. We went out a few times. Or did we? I can’t believe I don’t remember.
Courtney looks good. I can’t say she doesn’t. She was a knockout back in high school, and she doesn’t look all that different—maybe a few extra pounds but it suits her. Most people look pretty much the same. Except me.
So I wasn’t that upset when she sat next to me. I thought it might be fun to catch up. But now that we’re talking, it’s not fun. It’s awful. I want to shoot myself in the head.
“And who do you live with?” she asks me. When I look at her blankly, she adds, “Who takes care of you?”
I grit my teeth. “I live alone.”
“Seriously?” Her eyes become saucers. “Wow. That’s hard to believe. But you must have a nurse or something, right?”
She looks shocked. Granted, I do have somebody who cleans my place and does my laundry for me. And my parents are a quick 10 minutes away in case I need something. While I’m able to transfer myself, I can’t get into my chair from the floor. So a couple of months ago, when I slipped doing a transfer, I was able to call my dad to help me get back in my chair rather than having to call the paramedics.
But I did live with my parents for about three years after my accident, and for the first year or so they were helping me a lot with pretty intimate things. And then when I was in the hospital with a bad urinary tract infection a couple of years ago that spread to my kidneys, I stayed with them again for two months after being discharged from the hospital, and I was right back to needing help with dressing and bathing. I’m completely independent right now, but I can’t deny the fact that even a mild illness is enough to take that away from me. So I’m careful. I stay home a lot during flu season.
Courtney starts going on and on about her job as an art teacher, which is sort of boring but fine. I don’t mind when she talks about herself. It’s when the questions turn to me that things get bad.
“So what do you do all day?” Courtney asks me. “Do you get out much?”
“Well, I’m a therapist,” I say. “I have a degree in counseling. I work in a rehab unit.”
“You work?” She blinks her pretty blue eyes. “Wow, that’s amazing, Ryan.”
I don’t know what to say to that.
“Really.” She puts a hand on my shoulder, but quickly yanks it away before I can get the wrong idea. “That is so inspiring. I mean, I bet a lot of people in your situation would just stay home and collect disability. But you’re out there working.”
“Yep,” I say.
“Honestly,” she says, “if I were in your situation, I would probably not even want to leave the house. Like, I would totally just want to kill myself. I mean, I’m really in awe of you.”
This is so goddamn insulting. Does she not see that on any level? But I can’t entirely blame her. After I got hurt, I couldn’t accept the fact that I was going to be in a wheelchair the rest of my life. I was determined to walk again. I told everyone that they were going to watch me walk out of the hospital. And then when it started to become obvious that was never going to happen, I did get really depressed.
My whole life in a wheelchair. Never walk again. Never move my fingers again. That’s fucking heavy.
But I got over it. I started taking antidepressants and doing talk therapy with somebody like me, and I made my life into something good. I’m happy to be alive. I’m just not happy to be here.
Courtney starts blathering on about her boyfriend, who is some kind of doctor. She doesn’t ask me if I’m seeing anybody. Is it obvious I’m not? How could I be, right?
Well Courtney is talking and my mind is wandering, a girl comes over to our table. I look at her, trying to place her. There’s something really familiar about her, but I can’t figure out who she is. And she’s not wearing a name tag like the rest of us losers.
She’s also really hot. I mean, Courtney is pretty, but this girl is so freaking sexy, my breath catches in my throat. That dress she’s wearing… Goddamn. And there’s something about her lips and her eyes. Jesus.
She’s so far out of my league, I shouldn’t even be looking. But I can’t seem to make myself stop.
“Ryan?” she says. “Is that you?”
My heart speeds up. I had assumed she was looking for Courtney. But now it turns out this super sexy girl is looking for me. I clear my throat which has become suddenly very dry. “Yeah. It’s me.”
She smiles. And it’s not that patronizing smile Courtney gave me when she sat down. It’s something different. Christ, who is this girl? I wish I could remember.
Courtney takes this opportunity to slip away, and the girl falls into her empty seat. I had put my hands on the table while Courtney and I were talking, but now I put them back into my lap. I don’t want her to see them.
“I’m really sorry,” I say. “I’m trying to remember you, but…”
She winks. “Hannah Leonard.”
Hannah Leonard? Holy shit, this girl is Hannah Leonard? How is that possible? I try not to let the shock register on my face, but it’s hard. I remember Hannah. I remember her really well, but she didn’t look anything like this.
“You look different,” I say. Did that come out wrong? I don’t want her to think I was calling her ugly in high school. Because she wasn’t ugly. Just the opposite. “I mean, your hair was… different, right?”
“A little,” she concedes. She plays with one of her silky blonde locks. “I’m surprised you remember me.”
“Of course I remember you!” I shake my head. “I used to have—”
I stopped myself mid-sentence. I was about to tell Hannah that I used to have a huge crush on her. It’s the truth. Hannah was in my math class and she was so freaking smart. I was in awe of how quickly she picked everything up because math was my worst subject. But she wasn’t just smart. She was really cute. She had this great smile with a dimple in her left cheek. I had dated plenty of girls before I met Hannah, but I never liked any of them the way I liked her. I used to think about her all the time. When she came to my football games, all I could think about was whether she was watching me. I only got the football scholarship because I was trying so hard to impress her.
I was never the kind of guy who was nervous around girls. But I was nervous around Hannah because she was so different from the kind of girls I usually dated. I couldn’t read her. I thought maybe she just thought of me as a dumb oaf. But I was so into her that I had to do something about it.
So on Valentine’s Day, I sent her a rose.
Well, I fucked up. She seemed furious at me for having done it. She never spoke to me again after that stupid rose. What a mistake.
And now, for some reason, she’s sitting next to me at the reunion, no longer looking upset about the rose. And looking pretty damn amazing. But she was sexy as hell before. She didn’t need to change anything about herself. I like her either way.
She still has that dimple. Damn, she’s sexy.
“Well, you look great,” she says to me. And she doesn’t say it the way Jim and Courtney and all those other people said it. She says it different.
“Thanks,” I say. “So do you. I mean, I’m sure you know you do. But…”
I stop myself before I say something too dumb.
“I was hoping to see you here, actually,” she says.
I raise my eyebrows. “Really? Because I thought you were… You know, mad at me.”
She waves her hand. “Water under the bridge.”
“Good.” My shoulders relax. “Because I’m really glad to see you too. You have no idea. So far, this reunion…” I glance around at the room full of people I don’t want to talk to. “It’s been awful.”
“I’ll bet.” She crosses her legs and I suck in a breath. “Well, maybe I better stay here with you then.”
Thank you, Ethan. Thank you for making me come here tonight. It turns out this night might not be so bad after all.
This night isn’t turning out anything like I thought it would.
I imagined running into Ryan here and flirting a bit, then suggesting we take off and go to one of the empty classrooms, then I leave him high and dry. It was a simple plan. Perfect in its simplicity.
But instead, we’re sitting together at the table, talking and laughing. And I’m not just laughing because I’m trying to trick him into going off with me. I’m laughing because he’s making me laugh. And because the way he’s looking at me is making me a little giddy.
It is really not supposed to happen this way.
“So remember how Mrs. Zellner was always droning on?” he says. “Well, I fell asleep once in her class and started snoring.”
“You did not!”
“I did! I couldn’t help it! I’d been up late studying the night before and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open.”
“So she found out?”
He nods. “That’s the worst part. She let the entire class go five minutes before the bell, so when the bell rang, I woke up and I was the only kid in the class and she was standing over me. I almost died.”
I clasped my hand over my mouth and let out a squeal. “Oh my God, that sounds terrible. Did you get detention?”
“You bet I did.”
Ryan wasn’t a bad kid in high school. He could be a bit of a class clown, but he was a nice kid. He never mouthed off to teachers like some guys. He wasn’t a geek like me, but he tried hard. I always thought he had a good heart.
Maybe that’s why I was so surprised and hurt by what he did to me.
Ryan reaches for the cup of punch on the table. I notice the way his fingers don’t move and there are deep grooves between the tendons in the back of his hands. He struggles a bit to pick up the cup, get his fingers around it, then take a drink. But he does it.
When he realizes I’ve been watching him, his ears turn pink. “Sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For…” He hides his hands back down on his lap. “Nothing, I guess. Never mind.” He chews on his lip. “Elephant in the room. I’m sure you’re wondering what happened to me.”
Well, I know he was in a football accident. But that seems to just be the tip of the iceberg. “A little.”
He lets out a breath. God, he still so cute. I wish I weren’t having these thoughts. I thought it was going to be so much easier with him in the chair, but it’s not. At all.
“I got this stupid football scholarship to college, but then I broke my neck the first season.” He winces. “I was diving for the ball and this guy tackled me at the same time, and I guess it was just the wrong angle. I remember the whole thing. I was lying on the football field, and the coach was asking me if I could get up, and I was saying yeah, I could. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move or feel anything in my whole body.”
“That’s so scary,” I breathe.
He nods. “It was, but honestly, it didn’t feel real. It didn’t even occur to me that it could be permanent. I just figured I’d get better at the hospital. But then they had to do surgery to fuse my neck, and I still couldn’t move or feel anything below my shoulders.”
“But you can move your arms…”
“Yeah, that came back. They said it might not though, and that would’ve sucked.” He lifts his right arm and he extends his right wrist. “I can bend and extend my elbows and extend my wrists. That’s pretty much it. But with a lot of practice, I can still do most things.”
“But you were using your fingers before when you picked up the cup…”
“That’s a trick.” He winks at me. “When I extend my wrist, my fingers bend. But I can’t move them on my own.”
I look at all the tiny buttons on his shirt. How did he do all those buttons without being able to move his fingers? It seems impossible. He probably just always leaves them buttoned.
He frowns at me. “Is this TMI?”
I shake my head. “No, not at all.”
“I’m sorry.” He adjusts his position in his chair so that he’s sitting up straighter. “It’s just that when I go out on a date with a girl, I feel like I should explain some of this stuff straight off the bat, so it’s not awkward later.” His ears turn red again. “Not that I think this is a date. I don’t. I’m just saying…”
He looks so nervous all of a sudden that I want to hug him. I reach out and put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s OK. Don’t worry about it.”
The right side of his lips lifts in a crooked smile, and I melt a little.
I pinch my leg under the table. I need to quit having these feelings. Right now. I came here for one reason tonight, and it wasn’t for Ryan Porter to get lucky. I’m here to teach him a lesson. And he deserves it. He remembers the rose as well as I do—it’s the first thing he mentioned. And he didn’t even apologize for it.
He could’ve apologized. I’m sorry for humiliating you, Hannah. That would’ve been nice.
But the crazy thing is, I don’t feel angry at him anymore. I want to get this guy alone, but it’s not for revenge.
It turns out my little crush on Ryan Porter hasn’t gone away. Not by a long shot.
To be continued...