I ate lunch in the teacher’s lounge the next day and I decided that I was never eating there again. Never. Again. It was empty when I first arrived in the small but brightly lit room, which contained a communal refrigerator, a disgusting microwave that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in a decade, and a long rectangular table that had likely been swiped from the cafeteria. I had brought a turkey sandwich this morning and I was grabbing it from the fridge when I was accosted by The Oldest Woman Who Ever Lived.
“I’m Estelle, dear,” she told me, holding out a wrinkled hand. I was hesitant to shake it. I know you can’t catch Old, but if you could catch it from anyone, this woman was clearly contagious. “I teach English literature.”
“I’m Holly Woodrow,” I said.
“Yes, I know,” Estelle said. I guess when you get old enough, you pretty much know everything. “I hear you’re helping Ben Graham coach the math team.”
“Yes,” I said. I didn’t explain to her that I wouldn’t be “helping” for much longer. Although I was a little worried because I heard that it was absolutely true that Ben did in fact have a PhD. And not in math education or anything bullshit like that. The guy actually had a doctorate in pure math. I couldn’t imagine why he’d be teaching at a crummy high school with that kind of degree.
“Ben is a very good teacher,” Estelle said. “He’s a very nice man too.”
I noticed she was looking down at something. At first, I didn’t know what, but then I followed her gaze and realized she was looking at my ring finger. Which, of course, contained no ring. I had a feeling I knew where this was going.
“Do you have a boyfriend, Holly dear?”
I considered lying, but finally shook my head. “No, not currently.”
“You know,” Estelle said. “Ben is single.”
“He got divorced about four years ago,” she went on. “It was very hard on him. Such a nice person… he really didn’t deserve that.”
Okay, now she had me curious. I wasn’t surprised that Ben was single, but I was surprised that he had once been married. I guess disabled people get married too though.
Ben picked that perfect moment to wheel into the room. I guess we shared the same lunch break, lucky me. “Ben!” Estelle cried. “How are you doing this morning?” Ben lifted a hand off his wheels and waved and smiled at Estelle then flashed me a slightly lower watt smile. “I’m fine, Estelle. You look great today. Did you get your hair done?”
Estelle beamed. “I did! You’re so sweet to notice.”
I gave Ben a funny look. Who notices hairstyles on two thousand year old women?
“I was just getting to know Holly here,” Estelle said. “You’ve met, of course?”
“Of course,” Ben said, pulling open the fridge to rifle through for his food. “Hi, Holly.”
I nodded my greeting.
“You know, Holly is single too,” Estelle said.
“Oh?” Ben said, not looking up from the refrigerator. I was glad he wasn’t looking at me so he couldn’t see my face turning red. I didn’t like what Estelle was implying. The last thing I wanted was to get set up with Ben.
Estelle stood up and made some suggestive comment about “leaving the two of us alone,” then flounced out of the lounge. I thought about following her, even though I still had about half a turkey sandwich left. I didn’t want Ben to get the idea that I was in any way interested in him. I mean, can you imagine? Ugh.
Ben retrieved some Tupperware from the fridge and wheeled over to the microwave. As he reached over to pop open the microwave door, I noticed he actually had some pretty nice muscles in his arms and chest that were visible even through his shirt. Then I realized I was ogling a guy in a wheelchair and looked away. Ben flashed me a pained look. “I hate it when people think that any two single people are appropriate to set up on a date,” he said. “Even if they have absolutely nothing in common.”
“Well, we are both math teachers.” Why was I arguing with him? It wasn’t like I wanted to go out with him. Maybe it was because I was used to men slobbering over me, and Ben wasn’t doing it for some reason. I guess he was smart enough to know he had no chance in hell.
Ben laughed. “You’re right. We’re made for each other.”
“So you find that idea completely ridiculous, huh?” I said, getting angry now. “You think you’re too good for me? Is that it?”
For a second, Ben seemed taken aback. He rubbed his knees with his palms and once again, I wondered why he needed that wheelchair. He seemed in good health and pretty normal from the waist up. “Holly,” he said quietly. “I really don’t want to be enemies with you. Maybe we need to start over. I’m sorry if I… offended you in any way.” With that sentiment, he held out his hand for me to shake.
I popped the last bite of my turkey sandwich in my mouth and stood up, ignoring the outstretched hand. Ben lifted his head so that he wouldn’t be gazing directly at my boobs. “I don’t need your friendship,” I said.
Ben stared at me as I walked out of the room, slamming the door just as the microwave beeped to let him know his lunch was ready.
At the next math team meeting, I really watched Ben carefully. My honest opinion was that he wasn’t a good coach. He was an all right teacher in that he could explain things in a clear way, but I got the feeling he wasn’t motivating these kids. He wasn’t tough enough. That’s why they were losing.
The obvious star of the math team was a nerdy senior named Carrie Morgan. She wore thick glasses and desperately needed to drop twenty, maybe thirty pounds. She was the kind of girl I probably would have likely teased mercilessly until she developed an eating disorder when I was back in high school, but now I was mature and savvy enough to recognize that Carrie really had brains. She was clearly the best student on the team and if I got her on my side, I guessed Ben might start seeing things my way.
After the session was over, Ben pushed a few desks aside so that he had room to wheel over to where I was sitting. Ben wasn’t traditionally handsome, but he was definitely extremely cute, at least from the waist-up. What you might call “boyish.” Too bad he was in a wheelchair, otherwise he might have had boyfriend prospects. Although really, his personality was pretty wrong for me. He was too goody goody.
“Hey, Holly,” he said. He smiled at me, which was surprising after what I said to him the other day. “We should talk. Do you want to go out and get a drink?”
Oh god, was he asking me out? I knew it! I knew he liked me. Of course he did. “Sorry, you’re not really my type,” I said.
Ben gave me a weird look. “I meant to discuss the team.”
“Oh,” I said. “Um…”
“Don’t worry,” he added. “You’re not my type either.”
Yeah, right. “Fine, let’s go.”
There was a tavern a couple of blocks from the school that Ben seemed pretty familiar with. There was a single step to get inside and I watched as he tipped his chair back and did a wheelie to get over the step. There was something kind of cool about that. I mean, as cool as anything in a wheelchair could possibly be, which was not very. I did notice as he hopped over the step that his legs bounced a bit from the impact. I got the sense that he couldn’t move his legs at all.
Apparently, Ben came here a lot because the first waitress we saw seemed to know him by name and she actually leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. I noticed he whispered something to her and that kind of irritated me. I thought of his claim that I wasn’t his type and decided this must have been bullshit because I was way prettier than that waitress.
“I’ll have a Corona,” Ben told her.
“I’ll have… a Cosmopolitan.”
Ben chuckled and the waitress hit him playfully in the arm. “Fine,” she said. “You get a free drink. Bastard.”
“Why do you get a free beer?” I asked Ben as she went to fetch our drinks.
“Well, Allie and I have this theory about girls ordering Cosmopolitans,” Ben said. “You know, because it’s gotten a reputation as this sophisticated and sexy drink, and the girls who order it think they’re all… um, well, anyway, if I bring a girl here and she orders a Cosmopolitan, I get a free beer. That’s it, really.”
I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but I got the feeling he was making fun of me. “Tell me something, Ben,” I said. “What did you mean when you said I wasn’t your type?”
“Back in the classroom. You said I wasn’t your type. How am I not your type? That’s kind of a rude thing to say.”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “Holly, you said the same exact thing to me first.”
“Right, well, what did you mean by that, exactly?”
“Do you need to be everyone’s type?”
“Just answer the question, Graham.”
Finally, he shrugged. “I don’t know. You seem really… high maintenance.”
I gasped. Ordinarily, that sort of remark would have just rolled off my back, except for the fact that Trey called me high maintenance too. Two guys calling me that in the span of a week was a little unsettling. “I’m not high maintenance.”
He shrugged again. “Okay.”
“Fine,” he said, a small smile touching his lips. “Obviously you’re a really low maintenance, easygoing girl.” He didn’t sound very sincere, but I let it go. “So tell me, how come I’m not your type?”
I thought about lying to spare his feelings, but I figured he didn’t care about sparing mine. “I’m not really into guys in wheelchairs.”
I was a little disappointed that Ben barely seemed to react. “Yeah,” he said. “Welcome to the club.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I actually suddenly felt kind of guilty for what I had just said. Sure, Ben was in a wheelchair. But he wasn’t unattractive, even taking that into account. There was something pretty sexy about him, if I’m going to be completely honest. But of course, the wheelchair was definitely a deterrent. How do you even date a guy in a chair? It’s worse than dating a guy who’s shorter than you are. Or at least it was equivalent.
I was trying to think of something nice to say when a waitress came over and plopped a beer down in front of me. I already had my Cosmopolitan, so I said to the waitress, “I don’t want that.”
“That guy over there bought it for you,” she told me, pointing at a sleezy-looking guy across the room, who was furiously winking at me. Ugh.
“I don’t want it,” I repeated.
Ben looked amused at the waitress removed the drink. “I bet that happens to you all the time,” he said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, you’re very attractive.” He said it so matter-of-factly.
“But not your type, right?”
Ben grinned. “Right.”
Hmph. I didn’t really believe him, but I wasn’t going to press the matter. “So,” I said. “How come you need a wheelchair?”
Ben had been taking a sip of his beer and he suddenly started coughing. For a moment, I thought he was upset, but then I realized he was laughing. “Christ, you’re blunt.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Is it a big secret?”
“No, not at all,” he said. “In fact, I’m glad you asked. Good for you. Gold star.”
“So what is it?” I asked. “Do you have cerebral palsy or something?”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “Cerebral palsy? No. I had a spinal cord injury about seven years ago and I was paralyzed from the chest down. Car accident.”
“Paralyzed?” I looked down at his legs and realized this was consistent with the fact that I hadn’t seem him move them. “You mean you can’t move your legs at all?”
“Can you feel them?”
He shook his head.
I squinted at him. “Let me get this straight. You’re saying you can’t feel anything from the chest down?”
He knew what I was implying. And for the first time this evening, I had actually succeeded in making Ben look slightly uncomfortable. I was pleased.
“No,” he finally said. “I can’t.”
He was quiet then and I actually felt sort of bad. If that was true, if he really couldn’t feel anything from the chest down, that really sucked for him. I guessed that meant he couldn’t have sex at all, which I guess also explained the divorce. Ben seemed like a decent guy, even though he was a totally awful math team coach, and it was a shame if a decent and cute guy was deprived of the very thing that made him a man.
And then something else occurred to me, which was if Ben couldn’t feel anything from the chest down, how did he know when he had to go to the bathroom? I assumed he couldn’t. So did that mean he was wearing a diaper, or a… what do they call those things? Adult protective whatever? Oh god, that really sucked for him. No wonder he was such a bad coach. Who could concentrate while wearing a diaper?
“So,” Ben said. “I wanted to talk to you about the math team…”
“It needs major changes.”
“Ben, you’re running it into the ground,” I said. “Those kids lose more often than they win.”
“And you think that’s because of my coaching?”
“So I’m a shit coach?”
Ben shook his head at me. “You’re unbelievable, Holly. Really. You know I’ve been doing this for a while. The kids really like me.”
“Of course they like you,” I said. “You coddle them. That’s why they suck.”
“And what do you suggest?”
“Pit them against each other,” I said. “Pick on them, humiliate them a little…”
Ben started laughing. “I’m not going to do that.”
“Then step down and let me do it.”
“Why on earth did I think the two of us could have a rational conversation about this?”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Look, Ben, either way, I’m going to end up being the new math team coach. You can save face by stepping down now or you can wait till you get kicked out later.”
“I’m not stepping down,” he said. “Go ahead, do you worst.”
He still looked much more amused than worried. Actually, he didn’t look worried at all. Which was a big mistake on his part. Ben Graham should have been worried. I always, always get what I want.
To be continued....