The fact that Ben and I shared the same free lunch period meant that I was always in danger of running into him in the teacher’s lounge. After my conversation with Carrie, however, I was feeling pretty good about myself, so I strode over to the lounge to get my lunch, and didn’t even care when I saw Ben sitting in his wheelchair, rifling through the refrigerator. I’d noticed Ben always seemed to have some concoction in a Tupperware container for lunch, while I usually threw together a sandwich of some sort right before walking out the door. I wondered if he cooked his own meals. But then again, how could he? He probably couldn’t even reach the stove. I bet he had some sort of nurse who did it for him.
Ben backed away from the fridge and his eyes got noticeably darker when he saw me. He laid his Tupperware on his lap and folded his arms across his chest. “Holly,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “You realized I was right and you want to apologize.”
Ben actually laughed. I had to admit, he was taking the whole thing with pretty good nature. Of course, he probably didn’t know what I said to Carrie this morning. “You’re amazing, Holly,” he said. “You know that?”
“You have no idea,” I said.
Ben laughed again. It was easy to overlook, because of the wheelchair and all, but he was actually a pretty good looking guy, especially when he was smiling. I remembered he’d told me he’d gotten injured seven years ago, which meant he probably got married before that. I wondered why a cute guy would get married so young. I mean, why would anyone? As long as you’re physically desirable, it’s better to play the field. That’s why I’m waiting till my looks fade before I settle down.
“Seriously though,” Ben said. “I don’t think you should talk to the kids that way.”
“What way?” I asked innocently.
“Um, you called them pathetic losers.”
“Well, they are.”
“They’re just kids, Holly,” he said. “You can’t be so cruel.”
“See, that’s where you’re completely wrong,” I said. “Kids need you to be tough on them. The world is cruel. You of all people should know that.”
“Why should I know that?” Ben retorted. “Because I’m crippled?”
I was surprised he used that word to describe himself. “You said it, not me.”
“Actually, Holly,” Ben said. “My life is pretty good.”
I snorted. That was a lie if I’ve ever heard one. How could his life be good when he couldn’t move half his body? Didn’t he notice the way everyone gawked at him? If it were me, I’d probably kill myself.
I was about to come up with a witty retort to Ben’s statement when the door to the lounge opened and another teacher walked inside. I recognized him as Doug Westin, one of the history teachers. We met briefly at a meeting last week when he asked me if I wanted part of his bagel. I didn’t. Bagels, in case you didn’t know, are probably the worst food in terms of gaining weight. You may as well eat eight slices of bread.
“Hi, Holly,” Doug said as he walked in, just nodding at Ben. Doug was sort of the opposite of Ben. He was a California type—blond, tanned, tall, lean but muscular. I guess you could say he was pretty hot, the kind of guy I ordinarily would have gone for, although for some reason I wasn’t doing cartwheels over him right now. Maybe because teachers just don’t do it for me.
“Hi, Doug,” I said. At that moment, I realized that I’d gotten so distracted by my conversation with Ben, I hadn’t even bothered to get my own sandwich out of the fridge yet. I got up and shoved Doug out of the way to find my lunch.
“Gee, you’re pushy,” Doug commented.
“I always get what I want,” I said, glancing at Ben to see if he heard my statement. “And right now, I want my sandwich.”
“Well, what does it look like?” Doug asked.
“It’s a sandwich.”
“Be more specific.”
“It’s wrapped in paper and says ‘Holly’ on it.”
Doug yanked something out of the fridge and held it out to me. “Your sandwich, m’lady.”
He was right—it was my sandwich. I glanced back at Ben, who was quietly eating his own lunch. “Thanks,” I said.
“You owe me now,” Doug said.
“Yeah,” he said. “You have to let me take you out to dinner.”
I was about to tell him that I didn’t date coworkers (which isn’t entirely true) when I was interrupted by the sound of Ben coughing. I looked over and saw that his face was bright red and he was coughing into his hand. He took a swallow of water and avoided eye contact with me.
Obviously, it made Ben uncomfortable that Doug was asking me out. And for that reason, I had to say yes.
“I would love to,” I said to Doug.
“Really?” He grinned. “Awesome. How about Saturday night?”
I glanced at Ben again, who was staring down at his food like it was the most interesting thing on the planet. “Perfect,” I said.
I made plans for the weekend with Doug, all the while trying my best to muster up a good amount of enthusiasm. When Ben finally mumbled a goodbye and wheeled out of the room, I practically passed out from exhaustion. How the hell was I going to get out of this date? I couldn’t. I was just going to have to go.
During the next math team meeting, Carrie and I were exchanging a lot of meaningful looks. She had completely bought my lie and thought Ben was dying. And it wasn’t entirely a lie. I mean, aren’t we all dying? Who’s to say that Ben didn’t have amyowhatever whatever?
After the meeting was over and the kids had filtered out, to go home and probably practice kissing their pillows or something, I watched Ben erase the blackboard. I didn’t offer to help him.
“I’m leaving,” I announced.
“Fine,” he said.
I shrugged on my coat, a leather wrap that looked like it cost much than $20 at Marshall’s. Ben watched me, pulling his own leather gloves onto his hands. The gloves were black with the fingertips cut off. I liked the way they looked. Sort of eighties retro.
“Nice gloves,” I said. “Stylish.”
Ben gave me a funny look. “I wear them to protect my hands.”
“Oh.” I should have guessed. Ben never did anything for style.
“So you and Doug, huh?” he said. He put his hands on the wheels of his chair and lifted his butt off the seat, adjusting his position.
I shrugged. “He’s very attractive, don’t you think so?”
Ben shook his head. “I guess. I never really thought about it.”
“Well, I think he’s great,” I said.
“Yeah, just be careful,” Ben said.
“What do you mean?”
“Doug’s kind of a womanizer.”
I almost laughed because Ben didn’t seem to realize that I was basically the female version of a womanizer. I was a manizer. It stinks that there’s no good term for a woman who sets out to make it with a lot of men. Well, except “slut” but I wasn’t a slut.
“I think I’ll be okay,” I said.
“I think your standards are too low,” Ben said.
“I didn’t go out with you, did I?”
Ben smiled. “Well, I never asked you.”
“Only because you knew you didn’t have a chance.”
Ben looked up at me, shaking his head and still smiling. He actually had a pretty adorable smile, I had to admit. Maybe it wouldn’t be too weird dating a guy in a wheelchair. After all, it was obvious even through his long-sleeved shirt that he had an incredible chest. I could see a few strands of sexy dark hair peeking out from under his collar and it made my knees a little wobbly.
Of course, I was way, way out of Ben’s league. So way out of his league that we probably shouldn’t even have been in the same room together. Doug and I made a lot more sense as a couple. Even though I wasn’t particularly attracted to Doug. Not that I was attracted to Ben or anything.
“It must be nice,” Ben said, “to be so confident about yourself.”
“Why shouldn’t I be?” I retorted.
He shrugged. “I mean, you’re just a teacher. It’s not like you’re a… movie star or even a high-powered professional. And most women, when they get over thirty, usually—”
“Who said I was over thirty?” I couldn’t believe he said that. Yes, I was over thirty. But I didn’t look it. Most people told me I looked 25. Or like a college student. I look great. I have zero lines under my eyes.
Ben raised his eyebrows. “You’re not?”
“Fuck you,” I said.
“There’s nothing awful about being over thirty,” Ben said. “I’m 34. I mean, you look great.” He grinned and winked at me. “For your age, that is.”
I wanted to strangle him, seriously. I couldn’t believe that a few minutes earlier, I’d been thinking he was cute, and feeling remorse that I told Carrie he was going to be a vegetable. Well, Ben Graham had no idea what I was capable of. He was going to be sorry. Really sorry.
I could see what Ben was talking about when he said that Doug was a womanizer. Doug was smooth, that was for sure. He knew just the right things to say to me—he was incredibly charming. If I hadn’t met dozens of guys like him before, I would have been totally taken in.
On my part, I looked fabulous. I wasn’t at all surprised he wanted to make it with me. I spent a long time on my foundation, after Ben’s cruel comment that I looked old. I really took a good look at myself in the mirror, trying to objectively decide if I looked older than thirty. I really don’t think I did. I looked just the same as I did in college.
“How old do you think I am?” I asked Doug as we sat down at the restaurant. Doug took me to a French place, which I thought was incredibly classy. Big points for Doug.
“Um,” Doug smiled. “Maybe… 25 or 26?”
I was disappointed. I read that if a guy is asked a woman’s age, he purposely underestimates by five years. So that meant he thought I was 30 or 31.
The waiter approached our table with menus. “Would you like to start with anything to drink?”
Doug ordered a bottle of white wine.
“Do you want to see my ID?” I asked the waiter.
“No, that’s all right,” he said. Asshole.
The conversation was a little awkward at first. A lot of pauses. Doug and I were both teachers at the same school, so you’d think we would have had tons to talk about, but somehow we didn’t. It made me think of when Ben and I had gone to that bar, how entertaining it had been talking to him.
“So you’re helping Ben with math team, huh?” Doug asked.
“We’re coaching the team together,” I corrected him.
Doug grinned. “I don’t see you as a math type. You seem more like a… a poetry teacher.”
Kind of sexist. “So women can’t be good at math?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Doug said quickly. “I mean, most people who are good at math are kind of dorky like Ben. Not sexy like you.”
But Ben is sexy. I blinked at the thought that had popped into my head. Why was I thinking that? I hated Ben. I was going to destroy him. I definitely didn’t think he was sexy. At all.
“Ben is a pretty bad teacher,” I said, finally interested in the conversation now that we were trash-talking my rival.
“You think so?” Doug shrugged. “I thought he was decent. He’s incredibly smart and the kids seem to love him.”
“If he’s so smart,” I said, “then why is he a high school teacher?”
“I think he really enjoys it,” Doug said. “He taught here before he got his doctorate and I think everyone expected him to quit or something, but all he wanted to do was teach high school. And then he got injured and we really didn’t expect him to come back, but he was teaching again six months later.”
“You knew him before he was in a wheelchair?”
Doug nodded. “Yeah. It was pretty sad when it happened. Some of the students were crying. But he bounced back really well. Except for his marriage, I guess.”
“I heard he’s divorced,” I said. I was trying hard not to sound too interested.
“For a while now, yes,” Doug said. “Angie was a teacher here too, and that’s probably one of the reasons he stuck around. She’s gone now.”
“Do you know what happened?”
Doug leaned forward and said in a confidential voice, “She was cheating on him. Big time. He tolerated it longer than I would have, that’s for sure.”
I swallowed. Poor Ben. “You mean he knew she was cheating and he still stayed?”
“I guess he was worried he wouldn’t find someone else,” Doug said. “And I guess he was right.”
“He dates though, right?” I asked. “I mean, sometimes?”
Doug looked at me a long time then leaned back in his seat. “Why so much interest, Holly?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said. “We’ve barely talked through this entire meal. This is the first time you’ve had any interest in what I’ve had to say, and it’s because we’re talking about Ben. I just find that a little unusual.”
I blushed. “I don’t—”
“Look,” Doug said, “if you like Ben, you should ask him out. Seriously. I’ll bow out. He’s a good guy and I’m sure he’s into you.”
He was “into me”? What did that mean? “Why do you think he’s into me?”
“Who wouldn’t be?” Doug grinned. “You’re gorgeous.”
“He told me I’m not his type.”
Doug laughed. “Not his type? Come on. He’s just goading you. He’s obviously very attracted to you. Did you see his face when I asked you out? Then yesterday he made some comment to me about how I shouldn’t take advantage of you.”
“He said that?” That was really sweet, actually. I was surprised Ben would speak up for me, especially after all the bad stuff that happened between us.
“He sure did,” Doug said.
I was surprised at how excited I was getting about this whole conversation. I mean, I didn’t want to date Ben. That was ridiculous. So why was I having all these thoughts about him?
We didn’t have math team the next day, so I lingered at my desk a bit after class, taking my time getting papers together. I had about two hundred homeworks to grade and I was getting behind. I wished I had some sort of teaching assistant that I could shaft all my work onto. That would have been awesome.
I was just stuffing the folded up homework papers into my purse when I looked up and saw Ben’s face at the door. He was sitting in his wheelchair (obviously) and tugging at the dark blue tie around his neck. His hair was sticking up a bit, which I found oddly alluring, like he’d just rolled out of bed. When he saw he had my attention, he put his hands on the wheels and pushed himself into the room.
“Hi,” I said. I was about to tell him it was nice seeing him, but then I saw the expression on his face and he looked positively livid.
“Holly,” he said in a low voice. “Why did Carrie Morgan give me a card saying that the math team had chipped in to contribute a hundred dollars to the Lou Gehrig’s Disease Foundation? And then tell me she hoped I’d beat it?”
Oh shit. “That’s weird.”
“You don’t know anything about this?” Ben asked, raising his eyebrows.
I shook my head, trying to appear innocent.
“That’s funny,” Ben said. “Because Carrie told me that you were the one who clued her in to my horrible degenerative disease.”
“Oh,” I mumbled. Shit. “Um, you don’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease? I thought you did.”
“Yeah, we had a whole discussion about how I have a spinal cord injury,” Ben said. “I guess that totally slipped your mind, huh?”
Ben’s eyes darkened and I felt my knees tremble slightly. “Holly, what the fuck is wrong with you? I mean, do you know how unprofessional that was? You told my students I was dying. Carrie thought I was going to need one of those laptop computers to speak. You just don’t… how could you…” Ben shook his head and put his face in his hands. I saw his shoulders shaking and for a second, I thought he was sobbing. Then I realized he was laughing. “My god, Holly, you are fucking unbelievable.”
I bit my lip. “You’re not mad at me?”
“I’m furious at you,” Ben said, laughing hard enough that his eyes were tearing up. “It’s just… too funny. The look on Carrie’s face… Christ, I can believe you did that…”
I didn’t know what to think. I was glad he was laughing and not screaming at me, which I guess he had every right to do. But it sort of showed he wasn’t taking me seriously. Whatever I did, it was just funny to him, not any kind of real threat.
“So what did you say to Carrie?” I asked him.
“I told her you misunderstood,” he said, finally no longer laughing. “But that I’m totally fine and not going to die any time soon. So I’m afraid your little plot has been diffused.”
“You know,” I said, “Carrie wasn’t on my side because she thought you were dying. She actually thought you sucked as a math team coach.”
“Carrie loves me.”
“As a person, yes,” I said. “As a coach, she thinks you’re crap. That’s what she told me.”
“I swear to you, it’s true.”
Ben eyed me and for a second, he looked pretty worried. I knew more than anything, he wanted the kids to like him. The thought that Carrie, his star mathlete, might be talking shit about him, really upset him. “Carrie would never say that about me in a million years,” he finally decided.
I shrugged. “Believe what you want.”
I could tell he was trying to look confident, but in his eyes, he wasn’t sure.
To be continued....