I’m not having a bad time with Audrey.
As I was driving over, I was regretting the whole thing. I was hoping maybe she would text me and cancel. I didn’t want to be the one to call it off, but I wasn’t excited about being trapped in a car with her for twenty minutes. But she didn’t cancel—I was stuck.
She looked really pretty when she came down. Every bit as pretty as she did that first day when I saw her at the party and had my fingers crossed she would talk to me. Her red hair is longer, her face is a little fuller, but she still looks the same. And for a moment, my heart was thudding so loudly, I was afraid she would hear it.
I didn’t know what to say either. For the first several minutes of the drive, I just sat there, focusing on navigating midtown traffic. Every time I’m with Audrey, I feel like she feels sorry for me. That she thinks I’m a loser. Possibly because she makes comments like, I’m sure you’ll find somebody eventually.
I mean, she must’ve known I had a girlfriend last year. I can’t imagine Katie kept it a secret.
And then somehow, we start talking. The kids are always a safe topic. No matter what, we will always share Katie and Andy. We will always be their parents together. We will always be the two people who love them most in the world. Even if we don’t love each other anymore.
“How come you’re all dressed up?” she asks me out of nowhere.
I look down at the tie that I’m not going to admit I wore for her. “I had to go to work today. Briefly. Greg wanted me to meet the new hires.”
“I heard the business is doing well.”
“Not bad.” I’m being modest. We’re kicking ass. “How is the interior decorating business going?”
“Good!” Her blue eyes light up the way they always do when she talks about her work. “I’ve had some crazy clients lately though.”
She nods. “This man I just finished working with wanted a mural all over his bed, so he could look at it when he was going to sleep. He thought it would be nice to have an ocean scene.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“It wasn’t. But what was weird was that he was really focused on having a walrus in the center of the mural. Like, I got this talented artist to do the mural, and he just kept talking about the walrus. I swear, when I saw the final product, the ceiling was mostly walrus.”
I grin at her. “So… you’re saying this guy had a walrus fetish.”
“It crossed my mind. No judgment though.” She laughs. “Still. I enjoy the work. When you’re almost forty, you start taking stock of your life.”
Right. Audrey’s birthday is in only a couple of weeks. We were just kids when we met, and now I am already forty and she’s almost there. I’d like to say I shrugged off turning forty, but that wouldn’t be true. She’s right—turning forty does make you take stock in your life. And I wasn’t anywhere near where I thought I would be at this age. If somebody asked me what I would be doing at forty when I was thirty, I never would’ve guessed I’d be in a wheelchair and divorced from Audrey.
But after a few bad nights, I got over it. This is my life. It’s not terrible by any means.
“You shouldn’t feel bad about turning forty,” I say. “You’re really successful and… you look great.”
Should I have said that? Maybe it was stupid. But fuck it. She does look great.
A flush comes into her cheeks and a tiny smile touches her lips. “Thanks. You don’t have to say that.”
“I mean it. You’re a total MILF.”
She laughs this time. And I realize how long it’s been since I’ve heard Audrey laugh. I’ve heard her cry more recently than I’ve heard her laugh. “Thanks. I think.”
I turn the corner to get to the school. Parking is always the worst right near the elementary school, so it helps to have my handicapped plates. Otherwise, I’d be circling the block right now.
“By the way, when is Andy’s play going to be?” I ask. “Have they set a date yet?”
Audrey’s eyes widen. She looks panicked. “What?”
“Andy’s play. Isn’t his class doing one too?”
“It…” She chews on her thumbnail. “It was last month. I thought you knew.”
My mouth falls open. Is she kidding me? “No, I didn’t know. I wasn’t there, was I?”
“I thought you were busy.”
I glare at her, my good mood instantly evaporated. “When have I ever been too busy to come to something the kids were doing?”
Audrey sits there silently as I pull into the parking spot. This is just fucking great. Andy’s class put on a play, and he deliberately didn’t tell me about it. That upsets me even more than the fact that I missed it. Especially since Andy isn’t exactly a world-class actor. He hates being in the spotlight, the same as me when I was a kid.
“He was barely even in it,” she says softly. “He probably felt like it wasn’t worth telling you. Honestly, it was like two hours long and he was on the stage for about two minutes. You would have been bored out of your mind.”
“Yeah, but I still would have been there.”
I park the car, and then Audrey gathers her purse and her jacket. She’s taking way too long to get out of the car, and it’s starting to irritate me because I can’t get out until she does. My chair is in the back seat, and I can’t get to it until she gets out. She probably doesn’t even know it. She doesn’t know me like this. Our entire relationship took place while I was able-bodied.
In a way, it’s like she was married to a completely different person.
As soon as she gets out, she starts walking to the entrance of the school. I grab my chair out of the back and reassemble it as fast as I can. It takes her a second to realize I’m not right behind her and she needs to wait up. I’m trying not to get frustrated, but it’s hard. I can’t stop thinking about Andy. Why would he do that? Why didn’t he tell me about the play? I feel like I barely know my son anymore.
As soon as I’m out of the car, she starts walking again to the front entrance. I bite the inside of my cheek.
“Audrey.” I call out to get her to stop. “We can’t go in through there.”
She turns to look at me and frowns. “We can’t? Why not?”
Does she really not get it? If I weren’t making an effort to be nice to her today, this is when I would be snapping at her. “The stairs. I have to go in through the side. You can go in that way, but I can’t.”
Okay, I may have snapped a little bit. But believe me, I was holding back.
“Oh my God,” she says. “Blake, I’m so sorry! I totally forgot.”
“It’s fine,” I mumble. I don’t want her apologizing to me. Although if we were with Katie, my daughter would have read her the riot act.
By the time we get into the auditorium, we’re running late. The seats in the auditorium are mostly filled, the right side with children from the school and the left with parents. I crane my neck and see that Andy’s class is already seated in the back. He’s talking to a friend I don’t recognize.
I still can’t get over that he didn’t tell me about that play. What the hell? Even if he had a small part, I still would’ve come to see him.
He glances behind him, and our eyes meet across the room. I lift my hand high to wave at him. And…
He turns away.
Shit. This is worse than I thought.
“Where do you want to sit?” Audrey asks.
I scan the aisles. We came too late. All the aisle seats are taken. “We can’t sit together. I have to be at the end.”
“Maybe we can ask somebody to scooch over?”
Audrey is looking around, but before she can approach anyone, a woman gets out of her seat and taps her on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” the woman says. “Do you want us to move over so you can sit with your husband?”
Audrey seems flustered by the offer, although I expected it. “Oh!” she says, her cheeks turning pink. “He’s not my… I mean, we’re not… married. He’s just… I mean, we have children together but…”
The woman furrows her brow, confused by Audrey’s babbling. “Do you want the seat or not?”
Audrey glances at me and then over at the seat. “Yes. Of course. Thank you so much.”
She slides into the aisle seat that the other woman gave up, and I park my chair next to her. Right after I lock my brakes, I lean in to hiss at her, “Really, Audrey? Is the idea of being married to me that mortifying?”
She sucks in a breath. Okay, that was mean. But she started it. I mean, what the fuck was that? It’s bad enough my own son is apparently ashamed to have me in the room. At least Katie seems to like having me around. For now.
“I’m sorry,” Audrey murmurs. “What did you want me to say?”
“How about nothing? Anything besides vehemently insisting we weren’t at all romantically involved.”
The murmuring in the crowd is getting softer. The play is starting in only five minutes, but for some reason, I’m still doing this. I can’t help it. If not for the thing with Andy, I could have kept my temper under control. But for some reason, whenever I’m with Audrey, I lose it. All that love I used to have for her had to be turned into some emotion. Turns out it’s anger.
“Well, we’re not romantically involved,” Audrey hisses back. “And frankly, I don’t even know why you care. You obviously can’t stand me.”
“You know, I was trying to be nice. I was trying to give you a ride here since that asshole you’re marrying never seems to be willing to help out.”
Audrey’s cheeks turn pink. Too far? “Patrick is a good guy, for your information. And if you’re trying to be nice, I have to tell you, you pretty much suck at it. Speaking of assholes…”
“So I’m an asshole?”
“Yeah, Blake. You are. Thanks for doing everything in your power to make my life miserable for the last five years.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” My voice raises a notch. The woman who gave up her seat is looking at us—I bet she regrets that decision. “You think I wanted things to be this way? I was ready to give it another shot, but you didn’t want that. You just wanted to be done with me.”
“Well, who could blame me?” she shoots back. “Listen to yourself! Who could even be around you?”
Christ, a bunch of people are looking at us now. And they’re starting to dim the lights. I can’t have this fight with Audrey again in front of everyone. It’s bad enough when we do it on the phone. But I’m seething mad and I want to get in one final word. “Fuck you, Audrey,” I spit at her.
“Fuck you too, Blake.”
And then the show starts.
The format of the show is that all the second-grade classes are putting on a dance number. Fortunately, Katie’s class is not going first, so I have a chance to settle down. I take a few deep breaths, resisting the urge to take my phone out and text Audrey something that will only make things worse.
Goddamn it. Yes, I broke my vow to be nice, but how could she blame me? That was humiliating. It’s like she and Andy don’t want to know me.
Who could even be around you?
That was cold. And it’s not true. Plenty of people want to be around me. If I wanted, I could be having drinks tonight with a woman who looks a lot like Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.
Before I can overthink it, I take my phone out. I find Cindy’s number on my contacts and sent her a text: Still interested in getting that drink tonight?
Her reply comes quickly—it’s flattering: Hell yes. My treat.
I allow myself a smile for the first time since I found out about Andy’s play. No, mine.
If you insist…
I look over at Audrey, who is sitting stiffly to my right. Her eyes look moist and she swipes at them with the back of her hand. I feel a jab of guilt. I shouldn’t have spoken to her that way, even though she made me feel like shit. It’s not like she did it on purpose. I don’t know what it is about her. I can’t seem to stop being angry at her. I was really trying not to be.
This was a mistake. I was trying so hard to be nice to her, but really, the best thing is to just stay away from her. Because every time I see her, I’m just going to do something awful like this.
I bring up Audrey’s number on my phone. I text her the word: Sorry.
I hear her phone buzz softly. She reaches into her purse and pulls it out. She reads my text message. She glances at me, nods, then looks back at the stage. She doesn’t smile or respond. Not that I expected her to.
Blake and I don’t speak again for the rest of the afternoon. Well, that’s not entirely true. When the show ended, he mumbled, “I’m going to take off.” And then he was gone.
This is our relationship now. The best we can hope for is to be cordial in short bursts. But we’re never going to be friends. That ship has sailed.
It’s a shame because I really do miss having him in my life. I’d like to believe it’s true that my forties could be the best years of my life, but it’s hard to imagine anything being better than the years I was married to Blake. Patrick is a great guy and I love him, but he’s not the kind of guy that I could spend fourteen straight hours with, cuddling on the couch and watching a Dick Van Dyke marathon.
I’ll never love anyone the way I loved my ex-husband. I don’t think I’m capable of it anymore.
Now that the show is over, I should probably go back to the office. But my head is swimming after everything that’s happened this afternoon. So I text Priya to make sure I don’t have any surprise meetings, and when she tells me my schedule is clear, I decide to take the rest of the afternoon off.
The first thing I do is call Patrick from outside the school. He picks up quickly, although he sounds like he’s chewing something. As long as it isn’t Sasha’s earlobe.
“Hey, Audrey. Everything okay?”
“Yeah…” I can’t tell him about my fight with Blake. He’ll be angry that I was even associating with him. Usually at these events, Blake and I try to stay at different ends of the auditorium. “Are you busy?”
“Pretty busy. Why? What’s up?”
“I’m playing hooky from work. I thought maybe we could hang out a little. Do something fun.”
“I’d love to, Audrey,” he says. But before I can get my hopes up, he adds, “But I’m completely swamped this afternoon. There’s this new client we’re working with and they’re being impossible. I don’t want to get into it, but I can’t leave.”
“Okay.” I try not to let on how disappointed I am. More than anything, I want to fall into Patrick’s arms right now. I desperately need a hug. “By the way, did you order a champagne fountain for my party?”
There’s a long silence on the other line. “Yes…”
I swap the phone to my other ear. “Do we really need a champagne fountain, Patrick?”
“Of course we do,” he says, as if suggesting otherwise would be madness. “Champagne fountains are very in right now. People love it. Trust me.”
Fine. If he’s insisting on a champagne fountain, I’m not going to argue. But there’s something else bothering me. “How come you paid for it on our joint credit card?”
Another long silence, this one even longer than the first. “I don’t understand the question.”
I grab the phone tighter. “Well, I thought the party was your birthday present to me. So I don’t understand why you put it on my credit card.”
“Our credit card,” he corrects me.
I grit my teeth. “You know what I mean.”
“Listen,” he says, “the birthday gift to you is me planning the party for you. I’m doing all the work, and believe me, it’s a lot of work. But I can’t pay for the whole party myself. That wouldn’t be fair to me, since it’s entirely for you.”
“Right. It’s my birthday.”
“For fuck’s sake, Audrey, you’re going to be forty, not five. I shouldn’t have to pay for an expensive party all by myself just because it’s your birthday.”
I feel a sudden flash of anger. “What are you talking about? I didn’t even want this party in the first place! If you can’t pay for it, let’s call it off.”
Patrick is silent for a moment on the other line. When he finally speaks again, he sounds very contrite. “Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you—it’s been a stressful day. But you know my financial situation is tight right now, babe. I want more than anything to throw you this incredible party, but I can’t do it without a little help.”
I chew on my thumbnail as I consider this. I suppose he’s got a point. If we’re going to use this party to help my business—and I agree it probably will—it does make sense we should split the cost, especially because my financial situation is more stable than his.
“Fine,” I say quietly. “But we need to talk later about an upper limit on spending. I don’t want this to get out of control.”
Patrick’s voice is like butter. “Of course. You’re the boss, Audrey.”
I force a smile even though I know he won’t be able to see it. Maybe if I smile, I’ll feel happier. At least I didn’t get into a horrible fight with Patrick the same way I did with Blake. That would break me.
“Anyway,” he says, “I’m going to be home late tonight, but you go ahead and enjoy your afternoon off. Treat yourself to something nice.”
Easy for him to offer when I’m the one paying.
But he has a point. After we hang up, I try to think of something that might lift my spirits. The only thing that immediately comes to mind is getting my hair done. I always find it relaxing, and after I come out of the salon, I usually feel a lot more confident about myself. I need a boost of confidence now.
So I call my hairdresser and make an appointment. I think it may be time for a change.
I still remember my first date with Audrey.
I was nervous. More nervous than I had ever been before a first date. I was always fairly laid-back when it came to dating and life in general. But I really liked Audrey. Really, really liked her. So I dug out a nice shirt and slacks, and I even put on a tie. I stopped at a grocery store before I picked her up and agonized about what kind of flowers to get her. I wanted to get her a dozen roses, but then she would have to lug them around with her during our date. So I decided on the single rose.
She looked so happy when she saw that rose. I knew I had decided right.
Dating in general is different now than it used to be when I was twenty-four. We’re meeting at the bar, and I don’t change from what I was wearing at work. And I don’t bother with flowers. It would be just short of ridiculous to show up with a flower.
But I can’t say I’m not nervous. I haven’t done a huge amount of dating since my divorce, although I’ve done my share. And dating as a paraplegic is different than it was when I was able-bodied. There are a number of things I need the woman to understand. There are going to be awkward explanations tonight—it’s guaranteed.
I get to the bar early to beat Cindy, to avoid one of those awkward explanations. If she shows up first, God knows what seat she’ll pick for us. If I get there first, I can pick something close to the entrance, so I don’t have to navigate through the whole damn place, knock into like ten people, and spill a few beers. I’m much better at doing it than I used to be because I’ve developed a better sense of where my chair will fit and where it won’t, but it’s never easy.
I order myself a Guinness while I’m waiting for her. I sip it slowly, knowing it’s the only drink I’ll have tonight. One drink is my max. I’m on medications that don’t mix well with alcohol, although back in the early days of my injury, I didn’t give a shit and drank way too much. It was a problem for a while.
The other risk if I drink too much is that it will upset my highly regimented bladder program, and I could actually have an accident right in front of her. It used to happen a frustratingly large amount of time in a year after I got hurt, but I’ve gotten things under control and now it’s thankfully rare. It’s never happened to me before on a date. It’s unthinkable.
As I wait, I do a couple of checks on my appearance. I run my tongue over my teeth. I rake a hand through my hair to make sure it’s not sticking up. I also adjust my legs to make sure they’re not crooked. I’ve gotten very particular about the way my legs look in the footplate. I can’t move them at all, not even one millimeter, so if they get jostled in any way, they stay where they land. I saw a photo of myself once where my legs got knocked out of position, and it made me wince. I hated the way it looked. So now I am hyper-aware of keeping my feet together and pointed straight. I don’t care if nobody else notices it. I notice it.
When Cindy is five minutes late, I start to get worried she changed her mind. It’s probably a dumb thing to think, considering she was the one who bulldozed me into this, but who the hell knows? I’ll never understand women. The only woman I ever really connected with was Audrey. I hate that I have to start all over again and find that one in a million girl.
Fortunately, Cindy walks into the bar at the eight-minute mark. She’s changed into a tight white shirt and red skirt that is all incredibly sexy. I wave to her, and she gives me such an enthusiastic wave back, I feel silly for having worried she wouldn’t show.
“Finally!” she says as she settles into the chair next to mine. She could have sat across from me, but she decided to sit directly beside me. “We’re finally doing this.”
I laugh. “You literally just suggested this last week.”
“Right.” She motions to our waitress. “But I’ve been wanting to do this since our first Skype.”
I lift an eyebrow. “Have you?”
“Oh Lord, yes. I had such a crush on you.” She winks at me. “I’ve always been hopeless at math and finance stuff, and you were spouting out this genius stuff like you knew everything. You made me feel very… taken care of. Also, you’re very cute.”
“Cute?” I snort. “I never thought I’d be forty and still having women tell me I’m cute. I feel like after thirty, you graduate from cute. Definitely after thirty-five.”
“Fine.” She leans in a little closer to me. “You’re not cute. You’re sexy.”
I stare at her, wanting to tell her she’s sexy too, because damn, she really is, but the waitress comes and she orders a tequila.
“It’s so strange to be dating again,” she says. “It used to be that I’d see some guy I liked, and we would flirt, but that was it. Now… the possibilities are endless.”
I take a sip of my beer. “Right. Endless if you’re a gorgeous woman.”
She bats her eyes at me. “Why, thank you, Mr. Campbell. But I have to say, the possibilities are more intriguing than the reality.”
“What’s your reality?”
“I hope this doesn’t sound too offensive,” she says, “but most men our age are… well, douchebags.”
I snort. “Gee, why would I find that offensive?”
“It’s true.” The waitress comes by and drops off her tequila. She takes a long swig, but doesn’t finish it. “It’s a mixed bag. There are the guys who are afraid of commitment, and that’s why they’re forty-something and still single. And then there are the guys who are divorced, and they’re all bitter or they don’t want to be tied down again. And anyway, they’re just jerks. I’ve met a lot of jerks.”
“I’m sorry. That sounds awful for you.”
“But you seem nice, Blake.” She takes another sip of tequila. “Are you nice?”
“I’m really, really nice. Really.”
Her lips curl into a smile. “I think so too. So far.”
There’s no doubt Cindy is sexy. Whether I am or not is debatable, but she definitely is. She’s probably sexier now at forty-two then she was at twenty-two. And she’s giving me this look that’s making my face feel hot.
She really does remind me a lot of Ginger on Gilligan’s Island. Audrey and I used to watch that show sometimes, when we could catch it. It’s the eternal debate between Ginger and Mary Ann. Do you prefer the sexy Ginger or the sweet Mary Ann? Audrey was more of a Mary Ann type, although she didn’t look like her. Audrey didn’t look like anyone except herself.
The waitress comes by to drop off a couple of menus, and we debate over what to order. Then I notice my chair move. Just a little bit, but it’s strange because my hands aren’t on the rims and the wheels are locked. I look down to check that the wheels are still locked and that’s when I notice it. Cindy’s foot is on mine, moving up my calf.
Fuck, she’s trying to play footsie.
Well, this has the potential to be awkward. I can’t play footsie back—I can’t move my fucking feet. And I can’t feel any of this. Doesn’t she realize that? Shit.
I don’t know if I should say something. Should I mention I can’t feel anything she’s doing? That’s the awkward conversation I was hoping to avoid, at least during dinner. But then again, is she going to be offended I’m not reciprocating?
Christ, I never had to deal with this shit the first time I was dating, before Audrey.
“I love calamari,” Cindy says. “What do you say?”
“I’ll eat anything with with tentacles. Let’s get it.”
She giggles. “How about onion rings?”
My chair moves slightly again. I can’t feel my legs. Please stop playing footsie. “Sure. Whatever you want.”
It’s driving me nuts. Finally, I unlock my wheels and wheel back about three inches. Cindy looks up at me in surprise, but I quickly look down at my menu and pretend it didn’t just happen. She stops, anyway.
“So,” Cindy says after the waitress takes our order, “have you always been in a wheelchair?”
I shake my head. “No. Just for five years. I was in an accident.” She waits to hear more, so I figure I have to elaborate. It’s fair enough that she wants to know. “I was riding my bike and a car smashed into me. I broke my back.”
She covers her mouth. “Oh my God, that’s awful. So you can’t walk at all?”
That’s not an uncommon question. There are plenty of people who use wheelchairs but can walk a little bit. I can’t. Not one step. Last year, I had to fly in a plane (only my second time in the last five years) and they couldn’t find one of those aisle chairs to get me the five rows from my seat to where my wheelchair was waiting for me. And the flight attendant said to me, If I help you, can you walk over to it? I had to explain that no, I couldn’t do it even with help.
“No,” I say, “I can’t.”
Her eyes are wide. “Oh…”
“It’s not that big a deal,” I say quickly. “I thought it was at first, but honestly, I barely think about it anymore. I get around fine in the chair.”
She looks at me over the rim of her tequila class. “Didn’t you say you were divorced for four years?”
“Good memory. Yes.”
“Holy shit.” Pink circles appear on her cheeks. “Did your wife leave you because…?”
“No.” I don’t want to put all the blame on Audrey for this one. “I mean, that was part of it. But there were a lot of things going on.”
I take another sip of beer. I wish I could finish this beer and then have another one. Cindy is making me edgy. She’s sexy, but this isn’t a match. I can just tell, and I’m sure she knows it too. She’s on the rebound and just looking for a good time, and I’m looking for something more meaningful than that.
“You know,” she says thoughtfully, “I appreciate that you’re not badmouthing your ex. I’ve been out with a lot of divorced guys, and I think you’re the first to abstain.”
I shrug. “Audrey was great. Nice and loving and… you know. I have nothing bad to say about her. And she’s the mother of my kids, so…”
Cindy looks at me for a long moment, her lips turning down. “Oh God,” she says. “You’re still in love with her. That’s even worse.”
“What?” I drop my eyes to look down at my beer. “I’m not in love with her. She’s getting married to another guy. So that’s done.”
“Oh, bullshit.” She takes a drink of tequila. “It’s obvious. Anyway, I’m not angry. A little disappointed this isn’t going anywhere. But it’s not your fault.”
The waitress comes by to drop the onion rings and calamari on our table. I’m hungry, but my stomach is churning. How did I blow this so quickly? I made a date with Cindy to prove I’m over Audrey. And now even Cindy can tell I’m still stuck on her. This feels like an impossible situation.
“Fine, you’re right.” I pick up a piece of calamari. “I still like her. So what? Like I said, she’s marrying someone else.” I offer what I hope is a charming smile. “Come on, give me another chance. I’m a nice guy, and also, I’m really good at math. Like, freakishly good. Is that turning you on?”
She laughs. “Oh my God, you are cute, Blake. Your ex made a big mistake letting you go.” She rests her hand on mine. “I’ll tell you what. Next year when you do my taxes again, you can let me know if you’re over her yet.”
I open my mouth to protest again, but I’m not going to convince her. And anyway, she’s right. What’s worse is I’m scared in a year from now, it won’t be any different. It’s been four years since we got divorced. Four years to get over Audrey. In that time, I learned to dress myself, bathe myself, drive with hand controls, jump a curb using a wheelie… but I can’t manage to get over my goddamn ex-wife. I’m worried no matter who I find, even if I manage to get married again by some miracle, nobody else is ever going to measure up.
To be continued...
To be continued...