Friday, February 19, 2021

Some Things Never Change Chapter X

 I’m lost in her eyes when Tony speaks behind her. He’s holding a plate of food in one hand and a spoon in the other one. Apparently Jules cooked.

“Couch?” He asks.

“Bed,” I shake my head at him.

“Have dinner first,” Jules says.

“I’m sorry, Jules. I’m really not hungry.”

She frowns. 

“Ok,” Tony sets his plate down on the table. “I’ll get your wheel fixed first thing in the morning. I’ll stay on the couch tonight in case you need help. That thing is not very practical, is it?”

“It’ll do,” I say.

“Sean and I can help him,” Jules stands back up. So she doesn’t want Tony to stay?

He stares at her sadly. 

“Ok, then,” he says simply.

“Night,” I wheel away slowly.

I go to the bathroom to get ready for bed. When I come out, Tony stands up from the table and follows me into my room. He closes the door behind him.

“Wanna tell me what’s bothering you?” He sits down on the bed.

I sigh. “Thanks for coming to the rescue,” I attempt a smile and turn the chair to face him. “Today and always,” I add.

I want him to know how grateful I am for everything he has done and continues to do for me. I want to tell him now, because later, it might be tainted with something else. I so wish there is a scenario where this doesn’t end up with me losing my best friend. 

He shrugs. 

“I mean it, Tony. I could never thank you enough.” 

He squints at me. I’ve said it before, many times, but I need to make sure he knows. 

“You’re freaking me out, Erick. What’s wrong?”

“I love you, man.” I’ve told him this before too, but not for years now. He stiffens. I watch him swallow hard, like he’s taking the phrase in with a coarse gulp. It makes me wonder how long it’s been since he’s heard those words from anyone. Years most likely because I don’t recall Sean saying them since he was a little kid. It makes me feel guilty that I haven’t told him in such a long time, however awkward it is to get the words out. 

“I want you to know,” I continue, “that whatever rough hand I’ve been dealt, I always consider myself a lucky guy because I have you in my life. And not only because of all the things you do to help me, but just for... you know, being my friend. So thank you.”

He stares at me silently for a long time. He has a serious expression on his face, like I just delivered some important news.

“You’re welcome,” he finally answers. Good, he listened. “I love you too,” he almost whispers. Then, slowly, he leans towards me and sets a hand on my shoulder. I lift my opposite hand and place it on his forearm. 

And now, I just have to find a way to tell him I’m in love with Jules and not break his heart in the process. 

The next morning, it’s like the sun shines brighter. I wake up really early, but it’s not because I’m preoccupied but because I’m eager. While I wait for it to be time to get up, a thousand images of Jules and me together run through my mind, and I let them! I don’t stop the thoughts. For the first time, I allow myself to fantasize freely about a life where I’m fulfilled and truly happy. 

At first, it’s hard. I’m so used to discarding any thoughts of things that I can’t do or have, that I have forgotten how to dream. 

“Tony,” I say after about half an hour of sitting across from him in silence. “Would you lend me your guitar?”

He looks up at me alarmed. I already know I can’t play. I don’t have any foolish hopes that I will somehow be able to strike the strings with my bent and useless fingers. It was one of the first things I thought about, right after I was told I was paralyzed. 

I remember the exact moment when that realization hit me. I was in hospital, with that awful halo thing nailed to my skull and a ventilator plugged into my throat. They had sat me up for the first time, which made me really dizzy. But after the feeling passed, it was nice to be able to see something other than the ceiling. Then, a nurse came to see us and gave Tony an alphabet board, to help me communicate while I was still unable to speak. After the whole explanation, Tony showed the board to me and asked me if there was something I wanted to say. 

“p-e-r-m-a-n-e-n-t” I spell like I’m a ghost.

Tony lowers the board and gasps.

“Not all of it,” he starts. “You’ll get off that ventilator. They’re sure of it. Your lungs just have to get stronger.” He’s quiet for a minute and I fear that’s it, that’s as far as my recovery will go.  “You’ll get some movement back, in your arms, and shoulders. Uhm… your neck,” I can tell what a hard time he’s having speaking the words aloud. “Not your legs, and your hands… they said…”

I lift my arms a little bit, as much as I can do right now, and look at my hands which are rolled up into fists. I squint at him, compelling him with my eyes to tell me everything. I need to know. 

“They don’t think you’ll be able to move your fingers.”

I stare at him in silence. He lifts the board again but I don’t want to say anything else. He sits on the bed next to me. 

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. 

He stays by my side in silence. It’s what he’s been doing most days, just sit next to me. 

“Do you want to hear some music?” He asks me about five minutes later.

And then it hits me, like a hard blow to the pit of my stomach. I’ll never play the guitar again. He can see in my eyes exactly what I’m thinking. I know it because his expression changes instantly. He gets up from the bed and swallows hard. He’s innerly kicking himself for his question. I can tell. 

A tear escapes my eye. I can’t help myself. Tony stares at me helplessly. He blinks back tears of his own. But unlike me, he can turn around and keep me from watching him cry. A minute later, he turns back around with dry eyes and sits next to me again. He puts his hand on my forearm. I watch him do it, but I don’t feel the contact. 

“Please, Tony,” I insist. I want to make it real, convince myself that I’ll never be able to play again. We are sitting at the dining room of his house. It’s Sunday. Jules and Sean are home too, but not here. 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he says.

“Are you afraid I’ll drop it?” I ask bitterly, just to spike him and get him to give me the damn thing.

“No, Erick,” he presses his lips together.

“Please Tony, just lend me your guitar for a minute.”

He stares at me for a while.

“Are you sure?”

I nod, so he finally obliges. He leaves the dining room and goes to wherever he has stashed it to keep it out of my sight. He comes back and hands it to me carefully. He waits until I have both my arms around it to let go. I’m kind of hugging the guitar to be able to hold it. I struggle to get it in place. 

“Can you get my right leg off the footplate?” I ask him. I can’t do it myself without dropping the guitar.

He does it and stands back watching me.

“Can you leave me alone for a few minutes?” 

He nods and leaves the room. I keep my left arm wrapped around the guitar’s neck and place my right hand over the sound whole. I use my knuckles to swipe the strings. I try to set my left hand over the fretboard but the guitar keeps sliding down. Finally, I end up lying it flat over my lap and try again. I play a few strangled sounds before my arms start twitching with spasms. I hang my head in defeat.

I’m still in that position when Tony comes back. 

“Play for me,” I ask him.

“Erick,” he shakes his head at me. 

“Please,” I ask.

It’s like I’m a masochist. I lean back on my chair and watch him play, repeating in my mind “you can’t play anymore. You’ll never play again,” over and over again, drilling the notion into my head.

And I guess I kind of did the same with Jules, I drilled it into my head that I can’t have her. But now I’m thinking maybe I can. 

At a decent hour, I wheel out of my room and knock on her door. Please be angry at me Jules, I beg in my mind while I wait. Last night she acted normally for about five minutes, but I think she just didn't want to kick me while I was down. If she’s still angry, it’ll mean she wanted me to kiss her back. She opens the door. Don’t be back to normal Jules, I ask silently.

“Morning Jules,” I say.

“Morning,” she tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “Do you need help?”

I shake my head at her. “Can we talk?”

She jerks her head and huffs. “We’ve talked.” She holds her breath and I smile. She’s angry. 

She walks out of the room and into the kitchen. I wheel behind her laboriously. This thing wasn’t meant to be wheeled around. I struggle at the corner of the hallway.

“Want some help, uncle Erick?” I hear Sean’s voice behind me.

I turn to look at him. He yawns. Sean’s never up this early, not when he doesn’t have class. He got up in case I needed help. I smile at him. 

“Morning,” I say. “I’m ok, but thanks for asking. This thing is not as comfortable as my wheelchair, but I can manage, as long as I don’t have to go out on the street on it.”

He nods. 

“Ok, tell me if you need anything,” he walks past me and grabs Jules by the shoulders. “Making pancakes, mom?” 

“I wasn’t,” she softens her look at the sight of her son. 

“Blueberry pancakes?” he winks at her. 

That’s Tony’s wink to the tee. I bet Sean doesn’t even know it. It comes so natural to him, and he looks more like his father with every passing day. I watch him from the hallway. That’s one thing I’ll never have. Even if I end up with Jules after all, I’ll never be a father. 

“Just think of something else,” I repeat to myself like a mantra. I’m at the supermarket. It’s the first time I’ve been out on my own since the accident. Jules wanted to come with me, but she’s cooking, and the whole purpose of me coming out is to be somewhat helpful, or at least less of a burden. 

People are staring at me. Just think about something else, I repeat yet again. I have a grocery list, so I try to focus on that. I pick up a basket and place it on my lap. It makes it harder to navigate on the chair, but I manage. I’ve been in this store before, so I have a vague idea of where things are. I head for the refrigerators. I locate the butter and struggle to open the fridge door. I try it head on and it doesn’t work. I turn my chair sideways and try again. I get it open but when I push myself forward the door bounces back and closes again. “Think about something else.” I repeat the process. On my third try, I manage to trap the door with the chair. Then I have to turn again in order to lean in, because otherwise the basket is on my way. I hook my right arm on the backrest to be able to lean in the opposite direction. I can reach it this way, but I can’t pick the butter up. I try a trick they taught me in rehab, where you move your wrist to trigger something called tendonitis. But my fingers are too curled up and I can’t lift it. I place the basket down and lean forward on my elbows this time. I use both hands to grab it and I drop it on my lap. Then, I push up from my legs to sit back up, I pick it up again, drop it on the basket, then struggle to pick the basket up and place it over my lap again. I’m exhausted now and it’s only one item from the list, seven more to go. I turn right at an isle and go for Sean’s cereal and of course, it’s on a high shelf, beyond my reach. I stare at the damn box for minutes. A nice looking lady stops by my side. 

“Do you need any help?” She offers kindly, and I hate her for it. 

Think about something else, I repeat in my head. 

I turn my eyes to Jules and watch her pour the flour into a cup. She’s my something else. I stare at her for a while and watch how she grows uneasy by my gaze. She doesn’t turn to see me but she’s fully aware of my presence. Are you in love with me Jules? I ask her in my mind.

Sean takes a milk carton out of the fridge, pours himself a glass, and goes to the couch. 

“Sean,” Jules pouts. “The milk!”

“You’re gonna use it for the pancakes anyway,” he smiles to her from the living room. He crosses his legs over the couch indian style and fumbles with his phone for a while. 

I push my chair forward unsure of what to do. I hate just rolling to the table and waiting for Jules to serve me breakfast. But to be honest, I don’t know what I can do to help. I wasn’t much help in the kitchen even when I was fully able bodied. 

“Want some help?” I ask her from across the breakfast bar. 

She looks at me briefly and shakes her head.

I turn my chair around with difficulty, and head towards the living room. Sean is frowning at his phone.

“Uncle Erick, have you ever punched someone?” He asks looking up from it.

“Who do you want to punch?” I ask in return.

“No one,” he chuckles without conviction. “I was just wondering.”

“A couple of times,” I admit. “But people didn’t mess with us often.”

“You mean you and my dad?”

“Yeah,” I nod smiling. “Would you mess with your dad?”

“I wouldn’t have messed with you either back then. You were just as tall as him, right?”

“A couple of inches shorter, but yeah, I was pretty tall.”

Out of all the people in my life, Sean’s the one most at peace with my disability, even more so than his parents. He’s known me like this for half his life and I guess he doesn’t really remember what I was like before. It doesn’t bother him at all that I’m in the chair. He doesn’t take precautions not to hurt my feelings when he talks about sports or does things I can’t do. Even after all this time, Tony still feels weird when he plays the guitar in front of me, while Sean just showed up at my place one day with his guitar case hanging from his shoulder and said, “Uncle Erick, would you teach me to play.” I love that. 

“Did you work out?”

“Gym’s not my thing. But I ran.” Jules comes out of the kitchen and looks at me. I’m sure she wants to kick Sean in the shin for asking me that, but I really don’t mind it. “Almost every morning. Even ran a marathon once.”

“Sean,” Jules calls him. 

“It’s ok, Jules.” I don’t want her telling Sean off. I don’t ever want him to tiptoe around me. 

“What?” Sean asks her.

“Nothing,” I answer him with my eyes fixed on Jules. 

She goes back into the kitchen. The doorbell rings. I start turning my chair around but Sean gets up.

“I’ll get it.”

Tony walks in and takes his coat off.

“Morning,” he says. 

“Forgot your key?” I ask. 

He looks at Jules and doesn’t answer. 

“So, your tire is trashed. We should get another one.”

“They can’t fix it?” I ask in a panic. That sucks. I’ll have to order it and god knows how long it will take, specially this time of year. It’s new year’s eve tomorrow and everything will be closed. 

“They're trying to patch the tube. But it’s safer to change it,” Tony walks to me. “It’ll hold for a few days, relax,” he adds at my look. “I’ll pick it up in an hour.” I let out air. He sits on the couch in front of me. “We’ll go to that wheelchair place downtown. Maybe they have it. If not, we’ll order it. They open at 9.”

“What about work?” I’m feeling really stupid here. All this could’ve been avoided. 

He looks at his watch. “I’ve already called Betty to get her to open up. We’ll call Lou at eight and ask her to hold down the fort.”

I hang my head back. 

“It’s just a couple of hours,” he says to reassure me. But Tony’s not the type to miss a couple of hours work. He loves that company so much. He’s never late and he only steps out when he knows I’m there to take care of things. “It’s good I got the bike shop guys to fix it so early. It turns out the owner lives above his shop.”

“Thanks, Tony,” I say.

So we wait. I watch Jules closely throughout breakfast. She tenses while she’s setting Tony’s plate down, almost grazing his arm. I’ve always been so sure she was still in love with him. She tenses while serving me too. Is she in love with both of us? Is that even possible? I need to get her alone and… I don’t know, kiss her? I look up at her while she leans in and she seems to blush slightly. I turn to look at Tony fearing he’ll notice something’s up. He’s looking at Sean right now, hopelessly trying to engage him in conversation. 

I watch Tony from my place across the table feeling like a traitor. How can I sit here and let him solve my problems while I’m plotting a way to get the girl he loves. Perhaps I should just let the whole thing go, go back to convincing myself I can’t have her and surrender to the idea that this is my life; take the good, push the bad to the back of my mind, like I’ve done for so long, find a way to carry on. 

Push the rims to go forward. This is my life now. I decided not to kill myself so I just have to push the rims. I wheel into the kitchen. What a feat to pour myself a glass of water. Strike the rims and move forward. I try to get my laptop out of its briefcase. After ten minutes at the same task I start to breathe heavily. I decided not to kill myself. I decided to stay a life, for Jules, for Tony. Just think about something else. Just move on, accept this. What should I think about? I look down at my legs. Where should I set my eyes? My sight travels across the house looking for something to grasp. I sat in my parents' living room for an hour, the computer still inside the case. Jules will be here soon. Until then, I just have to hold on. Let’s just push the rims forward towards the door, I’ll wait for her there.

Carry on, move forward. Except I can’t. I can’t. While it took me years to get accustomed to the idea of this being my life, it has taken me but one night to lose myself in the dream of having more, of having Jules. And it feels so good.

I wheel behind Tony in this awful chair. We reach the car and he gets the door for me. I settle the chair as close as possible to the seat and try to calculate if I can make the transfer.

“Can I help?” My friend asks. Oh Tony, I really don’t want to hurt you. “Erick?”

“Uhm, I think I can do it,” I refuse his help. 

I regret it in the middle of the transfer, because the distance between the chair and the seat is too big and I almost end up falling in the gap. Tony catches me at the last minute and holds me just enough so I can finish transferring. I really should back off and forget all about Jules. Perhaps I can move away, to another city preferably. 

Jules gets the shower chair out of the way and stands in front of me outside the car. Tony takes it from her and wheels it back into the house.

“I’ll see you tonight,” I say to her. She nods. “Maybe we can talk?” I ask in as sweet a tone as I can master. She rolls her eyes at me. “Or just hang out?” I try a different approach.

She shrugs. Tony’s back and he kisses her cheek goodbye. 

“Later, Jules,” he says longingly. 

We pick up my wheel and then stop by the wheelchair store. It’s still closed, so we sit in the car to wait. 

“So, how’s the café coming along?” I try to act normal. 

“I’m almost done with the kitchen. I’ve replaced the sink and the sockets. I’ll start painting after new year. Are you gonna ask Lou out again?”


“Uh, I…”

“She said she wanted to, why hadn’t you gone out with her again?”

Because I’m in love with Jules, I think to myself. If I tell him now, before I make any move on her, perhaps he won’t hate me forever. 

A clerk comes out from the store and flips the sign on the door to “open”.

“It’s opened,” I say. 

Tony’s looking at me intently. I can’t escape his gaze. I avert my eyes, but I can’t get out of the car, not until he gets my chair for me. 

“Don’t wanna talk about it, huh?” He says after a minute.

“I don’t think we’re right for each other.”

“How will you know if you don’t go out with her?”

“I just do,” I open the car’s door.

He looks at me for yet another minute, but finally he steps out of the car and gets me my chair. As soon as I’m on it, I feel a tiny bit better. It’s such a relief to have my chair back. And to think I once hated it with all my being. We go into the store and request the wheel but they don’t have it.

“We’ll order it right now,” Tony takes his phone out.

“I’ll do it, Tony,” I stop him. “Thanks. Let’s get to work. It’s late.”

When we get to the company, Betty is pacing anxiously across the lobby. She runs to us as soon as she sees us. Did some disaster happen while we were gone?

“Mr. Cross,” she says out of breath. 

“What is it, Betty?” Tony asks because she’s just standing there now, like she wants to say something but doesn’t know how. 

“You have a visitor,” she finally speaks. 

We wait for her to elaborate but she’s rubbing her hand to her forehead in silence. 

“I asked her to wait, but she insisted. I couldn’t stop her, so I asked Miss Lou to stay with her.” She’s speaking so fast now that it’s hard to understand her.

“With who?” Tony asks.

“Your mother,” she lets out.

Tony dodges her and goes for the stairs. 

“Oh God,” Betty says to me, looking at the empty spot that Tony has left vacant. “Should I have called the police? Do I call them now?”

“No, Betty,” I say and wheel to the elevator. The damn doors take forever to open, and I feel like an eternity has gone by when I finally arrive at the first floor. Lou is standing outside of Tony’s office looking confused. She’s unaware of the history between them, so she probably has no idea what’s going on. Tony is inside with his mother. The door is still opened. Tony is quiet. He’s looking straight at her, but no words come out of his mouth.

“You’re so handsome,” she lifts a hand to touch his cheek. Tony traps her wrist and stops her from touching him.

She’s a beautiful woman, even at her age, elegant and slender. She has white skin and black hair that reaches her shoulders. I’ve only seen this woman a handful of times before, and not for almost twenty years, yet I wouldn’t have mistaken her for someone else, the resemblance is evident. Tony looks a lot more like her than like his father. He has her eyes and the same long eyelashes. 

Lou walks to me and gives me an interrogative look. 

“Come on,” I say to her and wheel away. She follows.

“What’s going on?” She says when we enter my office. “Betty said that’s Tony’s mother.”

I nod. 

“So?” She presses.

“So nothing,” I say. “Just give them some space.”

She looks back at Tony’s office from my door. It’s across the hallway so I don’t think we would be able to hear them unless they raise their voices, but they’re still quiet. 

“Betty said not to leave her alone in the office and keep her away from the computer,” she looks back at me. “Come on, Erick, you gotta give me something.”

“Anything else happened while we were gone?” I change the subject.

“No,” she pouts, but then her expression changes like she just remembered something and she sits down in front of my desk. “Are you ok?”

“Why?” I ask not following her.

“Oh, it’s just… Betty said you were probably sick.”

“I’m not,” I shake my head at her.

“She said Tony only steps out of the office if you're here to take care of things, unless you’re sick.”

I huff. It’s true though.

“Well, I’m not,” I repeat. “We just had to take care of something.”

“Ok,” she doesn’t believe me but she lets it go. 

She gives me a brief report on the otherwise uneventful morning and goes back to her office. I turn my computer on and start working, but I keep looking in Tony’s direction. I don’t have a clear view from the desk, but I think I would notice if something big were to happen, like Tony calling the cops on his mother. It’s all quiet. 

About fifteen minutes later, he walks into my office. He stays at the door for a few seconds looking at me before speaking.

“Did Lou manage ok without us?” He says as if his mother hadn’t just been here. 

“She did alright,” I play along. I don’t ask him if he’s ok, because it would be a stupid question. 

He takes a few steps towards me.

“Uhm, do we work on the… that thing, uhm, routes?” He stutters.

“We should go over the routes and make sure everything is set before the long weekend,” I give him an excuse to stay, because I know that’s what he wants to do. 

He nods with an attempt of a smile and sits down across from me. We work for a while. I wait in case he wants to talk, but he doesn’t. I know this is one hard topic for him. We review Lou’s work on paper, but pretty quickly we run out of things to do. We both have work, just nothing to discuss together. He sits quietly for a while. 

“Do you want to get your computer and work here with me?” I ask him. “We can make sure we don’t miss anything that way.”

He nods at me and gets up. He comes back a minute later and sets his laptop on my desk. He stays with me for the rest of the day. We order take out for lunch and eat in the office. 

“Wanna talk about it?” I ask him halfway through our sandwiches. 

He shakes his head at me and I don’t push him.

After lunch, we go back to work in silence. 

“Come with me to the café?” He asks near closing time.

“Sure,” I say. 

This is what Tony does. When things get hard, he comes to me, and I know all he wants is for me to keep him company, even if he doesn’t speak about anything. So we drive to the new café after work and he gets busy with the repairs while I play music on my phone. Occasionally, he asks me to hand him a tool, other than that, I don’t really do anything to help. I’m here because I know he doesn’t want to be alone, but after a while, I’m bored out of my mind.

I notice his guitar is lying on a corner of the kitchen. He’s gotten enough work done for one night, but I can tell he doesn’t want to go home yet. 

“Do you wanna jam a little?” I suggest pointing at the guitar with my chin. “Like old times.”

I know it won’t be like old times, because I can’t play anymore, but we can sing something. 

He looks at the guitar and then back at me, considering it. 

“Ok,” he says and pulls up a chair.

He picks the guitar up and takes it out of its case. He sits down in front of me and runs his hands over the strings. He looks up at me.

“Want a drink?” He puts the guitar down. 

I nod. He gets up and pours me a scotch from a bottle that’s half empty. It looks like he’s been drinking every night while working on this place. He sits back down. 

“Let’s write a song,” I say, hoping he’ll finally shake the feeling of guilt while playing in front of me. 

I hum a tune and he replicates it with the guitar. I nod, and he plays it again. He adds his own chords, and I start messing around with lyrics. 

“The world weighs on me... it trounces me sometimes. I stagger through the days, it’s been so hard… Enemies tower over me. I’m helpless on the ground… Lift me up, hold my arm. You keep me steady amidst the black clouds…”

About twenty minutes later, we have a song draft. 

“You should be a songwriter, Erick,” he smiles at me after a while.  

“It feels good, you know?” I smile back. “Jamming with you.”

He looks down. 

“Let’s play some more,” I say, wanting him to shake it off. I mean it. Playing with him doesn’t depress me, quite the opposite. I need this, it’s like venting everything out. 

“Lift me up, hold my arm. You’re my shield against the dark…”

“It’s a good song, man, we should write it down,” Tony suggests. 

But we don’t have any paper, so we end up recording it on my phone. 

When we’re done, he refills our glasses and we play some old songs. The company will be closed tomorrow, so we don’t worry about the time. We stay at the café way past midnight, until I’m a little drunk and too tired to keep singing. 

He drops me off at the new apartment.

“Thanks for hanging out with me today,” he says before I wheel inside. 

“Do you want to stay over?”

“Nah,” he shakes his head at me. “Jules won’t like it.”

“You’ll come by early tomorrow, though. Won’t you?” I say. “In case, Jules needs anything from the store,” I add to give him an excuse to do so. 

“Sure,” he nods. 

I wake up with Julia’s image on my head, as present as if she were standing in front of me. Something has shifted inside of me. I’ve spent years putting off my desire. I’ve not just settled for the tiny moments I get from her, I’ve treasured them knowing they were all I was entitled to. But things are different now. And the moment I allowed myself to dream further, I broke a containment wall and now I can’t resist the urge to claim her. The need to be with her burns me. 

I wheel out of my room knowing she won’t be up yet. It’s early. I always wake up so early. I park my chair in front of her door and knock. 

“You stayed out pretty late last night, huh?” She says as she opens the door. “Were you with Tony?”

“Uhm, yes,” I say awkwardly.

“Funny,” she says. “He said you were avoiding him.”

“I…, no,” I shift in my chair uncomfortably. “Well, I,” Jesus, what do I say to that?

“I thought you said you wanted to talk to me last night?” 

“I did, I do. Can we talk now?”

“Oh, so now you want to talk?” She says spitefully.

“Yes, Jules, I need to tell you something,”

“If it’s an excuse, I don’t want to hear it!”

“An excuse for what?” I’ve no idea what she’s talking about and this is a first. Jules and I understand each other, I can always talk to her effortlessly.

“For keeping me waiting for you last night,” she blurts out.

She was waiting for me? My heart jumps. Only then, I remember I told her we could hang out. Shit, did I stand her up?

“Something came up,” I say. “I’m sorry, I should have called.”

She rolls her eyes at me and walks away.

“Jules, wait,” I start to say but I’m interrupted by the doorbell. 

Tony took my offer seriously and he’s here already. He didn’t use his key again. Jules opens up for him and then comes back to me. 

“So you asked Tony to come by early today?” she mutters accusingly. 

“Uhm, yes,” I admit. 

She stares at me with a frown.

“Nice of you to let me know,” she says and walks away again.

“Morning, Erick,” Tony shows up behind her. “What’s up with Jules?” He asks.

I shrug. 

“I’ll make coffee,” he says.

“I have to… you know,” I stutter. I have to do all the things I do in a “long morning”, like Tony puts it. 

“Oh, of course,” he says. “I’ll be in the living room.”

I go back to my room to start my incredibly long morning routine. When I finish, Tony’s sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee on his hand. He’s staring at the wall, lost in his thoughts. I wheel to him. He looks up and grins at me kindly, like he’s relieved to see me. 

“Coffee?” He offers.

“Sure,” I nod. 

Jules is in the kitchen, cooking already. Tony and I sit quietly in the living room for a while. 

“Want some breakfast?” He asks me after a while.

“I’m not really hungry,” I say because I’m really not.

“Me neither,” he says. 

I catch Jules looking at me, I meet her eyes for a second and she looks away. I want to talk to her so badly, but it’s out of the question right now. Tony’s sitting next to me, although he’s just staring at the wall again. 

“Do you wanna watch some TV?” I ask him. I want to be a good friend and help him get his mind off things, but I’m drawing a blank here. The only thing I can think about is getting Jules alone and telling her how I feel. I’m the worst person in the world.

He doesn’t answer.

“Tony,” I call him.

“What?” He asks, returning from his thoughts. “Sorry,” he says. 

“It’s ok,” I shrug. 

We stay there for another half an hour, but I’m growing restless by the minute. I have nothing to do but watch and think of Jules, but the thing is, I’m sitting next to Tony, so I keep looking at him too. Finally, I can’t take it anymore, I push my rims and start wheeling away. Tony gets up, like I startled him awake. He follows me. 

I go into my room and plug my cell phone to the charger just to have something to do. Tony sits on the bed. I look at him. 

“Sorry,” he says. “Am I hovering?”

“Wanna talk about it?” I ask.

“What’s there to say, man?” He sighs. “She showed up, said she’s sorry. She’s so damn sorry,” he speaks barely loud enough for me to hear him. “I keep seeing my dad’s face. I see him on the ground pressing his chest,” he swallows hard. “I can’t get it out of my mind… And I think about all the things I did after that. And she just shows up now... And when I looked at her… I want to blame it all on her. But the thing is, it’s not all her fault. But I have to blame her, you know,” he looks up at me. “I have to, Erick, because if I don’t,” he makes a pause. “Then, there’s no one else to blame but me.”

He looks down again and stays there staring at his feet. 

“I think it’s time you forgave yourself,” I say. “Talk to Jules, apologize to her. Get it off your chest. And then, just let it go.” It hurts to say it, but that’s what he should do. 

He stares at me silently for a while.

“You know, Erick?” he finally speaks up. “The other night you said you were grateful for my friendship, but the truth is, you’ve done more for me than I ever could for you. When everything fell apart, you were there for me even though you were going through hell yourself. Don’t think I don’t know how hard it was for you back then, and still you managed to be there for me every single day. You looked after Jules and Sean when I was too stupid to do so. When things get hard, I explode and everyone around me be damned. But not you, no matter how hard things get, you never forget about the people around you. You’re the most selfless person I know, the strongest too. I admire you.”

His words stab me directly across the heart. Oh Tony, if only you knew.

“What if we write down the song?” He suggests then, abandoning the subject.

I nod and we go back into the living room.

I play the recording and he scribbles on the sheet music.  Sean comes out of his room and watches us while we do it so I ask him to join us. I know it will make Tony happy, and maybe it will get Sean and him closer together. He gets his guitar and sits next to us. We teach him the notes to the new song.

“Did you write this, uncle Erick?” He asks me.

I catch Jules looking at me again.

“We both did, me and your dad,” I say looking back at them.

Sean turns to Tony.

“I dig it,” he says. 

They take turns with the guitar and I feel like Tony’s finally letting go of his reluctance to play in front of me. I celebrate the small victory. 

“So, this is what you were doing last night, huh?” Jules hisses when I go into the kitchen to get some water. 

“Yes but… it was because…” 

“Never mind,” she says.

I grab her hand to keep her from walking away. I turn my head to the living room and lower my voice to make sure Tony doesn’t hear us. 

“His mother showed up yesterday at the company,” I whisper.

“What?” She opens her eyes wide. 

“Shh,” I hush her. “Don’t tell him I told you.”

She sighs and nods. And then she spends the rest of the day looking at him and not me. She sits a little bit too close to him while we have lunch, she gives him a beer and asks him how work’s been three different times. I watch her look at Tony like I’ve done for the past eight years or so, and something breaks inside of me.

“Let’s play your other song,” Seans says and Tony agrees. 

I look at Jules yet again, she’s at the kitchen, but I can see her across the breakfast bar. Sean starts playing the melody on the guitar before I can refuse. So I sing. I imagine I’m singing it to her, on the bed, just the two of us together like the other night. 

As I watch her, I find myself making a mental list of all the things I will miss about her if I renounce her. Her hand on my face, her sweet smile, the light jokes and endless conversations about the hard topics of life, and the small talk about the unimportant details of our days. When I’m through, I'm convinced she loves me back. I’m not sure why, but I have this feeling like there’s no way she could behave that way next to me if she didn’t love me. 

When we’re about to sit at the table to have dinner, we all notice we forgot to get bread. So Tony and Sean set out to the bakery. I stay alone with Jules and I can’t help but linger on how lonely I would be without her. 

“Do you get lonely sometimes?” I ask her out of the blue. 

“Screw you, Erick!” It’s her answer. 

I drop my mouth. What did I do now? She stands up and starts in the direction of her room.

“Jules,” I chase after her. I manage to cut her off in the hallway.

“I didn’t kiss you because I’m lonely,” she blurts out.

“That’s not what I meant,” shit! She stands there, looking down at me, hugging her own body with both arms. “Why did you kiss me?” I can help but ask.

She doesn’t answer me though, and a minute later Tony and Sean get back, so we can’t talk anymore. 

She stays angry at me throughout dinner. I know I said before that I wanted her to be angry, but not like this. This is angry angry. She barely says “happy new year” to me at midnight. She sits far away from me all throughout the night. I can’t wait for Tony to leave and Sean to go to bed so we can talk it out. But when Tony says goodbye, she stops him.

“Why don’t you stay over,” she suggests. “It’s late and you’ve been drinking, I don’t want you driving.”

The next day, I’m restless to sort things out, but Tony’s there, so there’s no way that we can talk. We all watch a movie together. We only have one couch, so Tony, Jules, and Sean sit on it, a happy family. I stay on my chair next to them, feeling terribly out of place. I don’t usually feel this way when I’m with them. We spend so much time together that I consider myself part of the family. Actually, I think I’ve spent more time with Jules and Sean over the last few years than Tony has. But something’s different today. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Jules is giving me the cold shoulder. Or maybe it’s because she’s been very close to Tony all day. At this point, I’m not sure if it’s because she knows he must be upset about his mother showing up, or because after I turned her down, she’s made up her mind that she wants to be with him. But that’s the thing, if she only decided that because I didn’t kiss her back, would she make a different choice if she knew I love her?

I have to tell her. Even though I know I’m betraying my best friend. I have to. I can’t take it anymore. 

“Can we go see the tree at the square?” Jules asks before sundown. 

“Of course,” Tony practically jumps out of his seat. “That’s a great idea!”

“I’ll pass,” Sean says.

“No, you won’t,” Tony turns to me. “We’re all going, right Erick?”

He’s asking for my support because he thinks I have some pull with Sean. I don’t feel like sitting in the car with them for an hour, but I can’t say no to Tony today. So I do my part at convincing Sean, and we all take a ride downtown. 

The streets are empty. I watch the Christmas lights on the buildings around the main square. A huge tree sits in the middle of it. Jules loves it. She stares out the window like she’s a child. I love her. Damn it, I love her so much!

“Sean,” Tony says as he parks the car in front of the apartment. “Would you come with me somewhere? I want to show you something.”

The new café, I bet. 

Sean looks at him for a minute before replying, but finally he nods. “Ok,” he agrees. 

“Will you come with us, Erick?” Tony asks me.

I shake my head at him.

“I’m kind of tired,” I refuse. 

So Tony gets my chair for me and then gets back in the car. Jules steps down too and they drive away leaving us in the street. I look at Jules. 

“I didn’t mean to imply you kissed me because you were lonely,” I jump right to the point as soon as they’re out of sight. I need to talk things through with her. 

She rolls her eyes at me and unlocks the door to the building. She steps inside the hallway and I follow her. 

“Jules, please,” I say. “We need to talk about this.”

“No, we don’t,” she says. 

I wheel ahead from her and turn my chair around to face her. I’m not letting her walk out of this. 

“Let me explain,” I insist.

“You don’t have to,” she averts her eyes. “It’s all pretty clear.” She tries to go past me.

“No, it’s not. Things are everything but clear,” I block her way again with the chair. “Listen, I…”

“You what?” She interrupts me. “You don’t think of me that way?” She meets my eyes this time. “You love me as your friend?” She says spitefully. 

Have I really done such a good job at hiding my feelings for her? I shake my head at her, and she gasps looking away again. I can’t bear the sadness on her face. 

“Just the opposite,” I confess. She parts her lips and looks back at me surprised. I’m looking up at her and wish more than ever that I could stand. I want to grab her chin and lift her face. I want to wipe the tear that has just rolled down her cheek with a healthy hand. 

“It was for you,” I start. “The song I sang on Christmas. I wrote that for you.”

She lets out a breath. 

“You’re everything to me. You’re my entire life,” I continue. “I love you.”

She stares at me in silence. If I were able to stand I would be kissing her right now. Even if she shoved me, even if she slapped me, even if she doesn’t love me back. I would kiss her. But she’s out of my reach. I grab her hand with both of mine and pull her into my lap. She obliges. And now she’s within my grasp. I shiver and press my knuckles against her cheek. My beautiful Julia. I lean in and kiss her.

She kisses me back and the world disappears. All that I can’t feel doesn’t matter because I feel her lips on mine. I take her moist mouth and feel a dam break loose inside of me. Her hands are on my hair and l submerge in the sea of the sensation. There’s no yesterday, no tomorrow, just her and me in this moment. 

A crash wakes me up from my bliss and we both turn around. Tony and Sean are standing at the end of the hallway, and the look in his eyes is worse than I could’ve imagined. He looks like he’s just been shot to the heart. He’s stopped breathing. 

Jules jumps up from me. Sean smiles. I close my eyes because I can’t bear to look at Tony’s grimace any longer. I force myself to open them back up and watch as Tony leans down and picks up his key chain. He turns around and walks out. 

I push my rims and chase after him. I catch him by his car, trying clumsily to open the door.

“Tony, wait,” I call him. 

He runs a shaking hand through his hair and turns around to face me. 

“Tony, I…”

Damn it!

“It’s Jules! My Jules,” he hisses, and I’m not sure if he’s going to launch at me or break down crying.

“I know,” I close my eyes again for a second. I open them back up and find his stare slashed with pain. He can barely stand, he puts a hand over the hood of the car to hold himself steady. He shakes his head at me, gets into the car, and drives away.

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