The next morning, I’m woken at 9AM by the intercom buzzing. I fumble for my phone and hear a crackling voice saying something about a package so I hit 9 to let them in. I wrap myself in a housecoat, push my glasses onto my nose, and stumble in the direction of the door.
I see a flash of red in the peephole, and I open the door to the most amazing arrangement of roses I’ve ever seen. I stand there staring at three dozen roses, mostly trying to figure out how I’m going to get them all into the apartment. My neighbor, old Mrs. Katz, opens her door and looks like she’s going to have a stroke when she sees all the flowers. “Is that from a suitor?” she asks me. She’s adorable.
I blush. “Um…”
“Well, that one’s a keeper,” she remarks.
That’s kind of… I don’t know, chauvinistic? Just because a guy gets me a… well, really impressive amount of flowers, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a great guy. Now that the alcohol has left my system, I fully remember why I’ve decided Luke and I need to just be friends.
I reach down to pick up the card stuck on the flowers. Mrs. Katz is watching me eagerly. “What did he write?”
He wrote: Dear Ellie, Thank you for last night. Three roses for each finger. Best, Luke. But I can’t say that to Mrs. Katz. So I mumble, “It says, thank you for a lovely dinner last night.”
“How sweet,” Mrs. Katz says.
It takes me two trips, but I manage to get all the roses into the house. I have to admit, I’m the tiniest bit impressed. Men in this day and age don’t usually buy flowers. At least, they don’t buy me flowers. One guy I dated told me flat out that he wasn’t going to bother because I didn’t seem like the flower-loving type, which I suppose is true. But it’s the thought that counts, right?
I decide the proper thing to do is to call Luke and thank him for the flowers. I dial his cell, which he answers just when I’m certain his voicemail will pick up.
“Hi, Ellie,” he answers, sounding very wide awake compared to how I feel right now.
“Hey,” I say. “I got the flowers.”
“Love ‘em or hate ‘em?” he asks.
“Love ‘em,” I reply.
“Good,” he says. “I took a chance. You seem like the kind of girl who pretends you don’t like flowers, but you really love them.”
Once again, I’m baffled by Luke’s ability to know exactly what I’m thinking. “So what are you up to?” I ask.
“Not much,” he says, as I hear something in the background that sounds suspiciously like a fax machine.
“Are you at work??”
“Sort of,” he admits. “Okay, yes. I am.”
“It’s nine o’clock on Sunday morning!”
“Ellie,” he says. “There’s something you need to know about me: I work a lot. When I’m not asleep, I’m at work. That’s how you make millions of dollars. That and being a crazy business genius.”
“So I guess there’s no room in your life for relationships, huh?” I say jokingly, but my laugh comes out a bit strained.
There’s a long pause on the other line. “I’d make time,” Luke says slowly. “For the right woman.”
I swallow. “So, um, what are you up to today?”
“Actually,” he says, “I’m sort of… giving a speech.”
A speech? I haven’t given a speech since I was valedictorian of my crappy high school. “A speech where? About what?”
“I’m giving it at Harvard,” he says. “It’s on, you know, how to be an awesome businessman and make a shitload of money. That’s the official title, anyway.”
“Can I listen?”
“God, no.” He sounds horrified. “Anyway, you don’t want to make a shitload of money. You just want to play with a computer all day.”
He’s right, of course. Sure, it would be nice to be rich, but I never really cared that much about money. Still, I like the idea of hearing Luke give a speech to a bunch of wide-eyed college kids. He seems like he’d be a fantastic speaker.
“I still want to go,” I say.
He sighs loudly but agrees to let me hear his speech. The way he gives in so easily, I can tell he really likes me.
Luke picks me up in the afternoon and drives me to the Harvard campus. My college boyfriend Noah had a car, a two-door Toyota Camry with a hatchback that was possibly older than I was, and he always ended up parking it miles from campus. He parked it so far away that it got broken into once. The guy who broke in damaged both the door locks, so for months Noah had to climb into the car through the trunk until he could scrape together enough money to fix the locks.
Of course, Luke, with his handicapped plates, parks just feet away from the Yard. Somehow I imagine that even if he weren’t disabled, Luke would find a way to get good parking. And if someone ever broke into his car, he’d probably have it fixed within the hour.
I spent ages in the morning trying to figure out what to wear. Of course, this is far from my first lecture at Harvard, but I feel like I can’t dress the way I did when I was a twenty year old college student. Jeans and a T-shirt just don’t seem appropriate. I finally select a summer dress that looks a bit formal and not terribly alluring. That actually describes much of my wardrobe.
Luke looks great, by the way. He’s wearing a dark Armani suit that’s buttoned up and does a pretty good job hiding the imperfections in his body. Aside from the fact that he’s using hand controls, it would be hard to know he had any kind of disability just from looking at him driving the car.
We chat through the entire drive to campus. I don’t even know what we talk about. I would have thought I’d have nothing in common with someone like Luke, but somehow conversation comes easily between us. He may not be boyfriend material, but I’m glad he’s back in my life.
I haven’t been to Harvard Yard in ages. There’s something sort of surreal about being here as an adult. Especially being here with Luke as an adult. Actually, going to Harvard in itself is kind of a surreal experience for someone like me. I’m sure for Luke it was a given his whole life that he’d end up there, but for me, it was tantamount to saying I was going to attend Hogwarts University.
I spent most of my four years of Harvard being mildly embarrassed to be going there. I always thought of myself as a questionable admission and was never quite sure what they saw in a frizzy-haired Jersey girl. When people asked me where I went to college, I’d usually mumble, “In Boston.” Of course, nobody would leave it at that. They’d always have to know where and I’d be forced to admit my embarrassing secret.
Now, ten years after graduation, it’s even worse. I see Luke, who’s accomplished so much with his life, and then compare him to myself. I’ve accomplished so little. That gives me yet another reason for being embarrassed to have gone to Harvard. I was given such a fantastic opportunity and what did I do with it? I became a computer programmer. I could have gone to Rutgers and been a computer programmer. So in that sense, returning to this campus kind of leaves me with a sense of failure.
“Hey, it’s the John Harvard statue,” Luke says, pointing out the statue I’d passed literally thousands of times during my four years of college.
“I know that,” I say. “What are you, the tour guide?”
Luke grins. “You remember the three lies?”
“Of course,” I say. “One, John Harvard didn’t found Harvard. Two, the date is off by two years. Three, that’s not even John Harvard.” I make a face. “I still remember it from the tour I went on before applying. Did you know it’s good luck to rub his left foot?”
“Really? I thought it was good luck to pee on him.”
“Oh god,” I say. “You didn’t.”
“Of course I did,” he says. “I assumed everyone did. Like having sex in the Widener Library stacks.”
“I never did that.”
“Yeah, well, you missed out.”
The Widener stacks are a desolate area of the library filled with the dustiest and oldest books on campus. It was also a place that young undergrads frequently went to exchange bodily fluids. I look at Luke and imagine him pushing one of his blonde bombshells into one of the dusty old bookcases and pressing his lips onto hers. And then for one crazy moment, I imagine him in his chair between rows of books, me in his lap and kissing him.
Luke winks and says, “Forget it. I don’t think I’d fit anymore.”
He’s joking, I’m sure. He doesn’t really know what I’m thinking about. Not this time.
The lecture is in Emerson Hall. It’s a humanities building that I may have set foot in less than half a dozen times during my brief tenure at Harvard. The science buildings are at the other end of the Yard, and those are where I spent most of my time. Luke seems very familiar with the layout of Emerson though. When I ask him, he admits that this isn’t the first lecture he’s given here. “Wow,” I say, “you must be a great speaker.”
He shrugs. “I’m fair.”
The lecture is scheduled to start in a few minutes and the large auditorium is already more than half full. I am shocked that so many people showed up to see Luke speak. He must be more well-known than I realized. Or maybe all these Harvard kids just want to be rich like he is.
An important-looking man in a dark suit is on the stage and greets us as we come in. “Luke,” he calls out. “Thanks for doing this. Everyone is really excited.”
“No problem, Ed,” he says. He eyes the stage, which is elevated several feet from the ground. There are four steps to get on top of it. “You got the ramp, right?”
Ed grimaces. “Luke, I’m sorry. Those idiots never ordered it.”
“Goddamn it, Ed,” he sighs.
“I’m really sorry,” Ed says again. “I’ll help you.”
I watch as Luke backs up to the bottom step and the other man pulls him up the stairs from behind. Luke’s legs bounce on each step and he puts his hands on them to keep them from falling out of place. Several students are staring, which makes me aware that I kind of am too. Luke takes it mostly in stride though.
They set up a microphone that’s lowered for Luke’s height. I take my seat and realize that the auditorium is now nearly full. Hundreds of people have come to watch this lecture. Luke leans over the microphone and I hear him clear his throat. “Hello,” he says. “My name is Luke Thayer of Thayer Industries.”
Luke has a fantastic speaking voice. I hear it echo through the auditorium and everyone stops talking and looks up at him. I can see some of the faces in the audience registering surprise.
“I didn’t know Luke Thayer was in a wheelchair,” a girl two seats down from me whispers to her friend.
“Oh my god, how awful for him,” her friend replies. “No wonder he keeps it quiet.”
I feel a sudden surge of resentment. I know for a fact that Luke wouldn’t want people in the audience to pity him. What, just because he’s in a wheelchair, his life is awful? That’s absolutely not true.
“I know you’re all here to find out how to make some serious money in business,” Luke is saying at the front. “My first big tip: have rich parents.”
There’s a round of laughter from the audience. It’s true that Luke did come from a wealthy family, but from what I’ve read online, it sounds like Thayer Industries was stagnant and even struggling a bit when Luke took over the company. In the four years he’s been CEO, the company doubled in value. I have no idea how he did it, but needless to say, Luke’s a really smart guy and a phenomenal businessman.
The room sits in rapt attention as Luke speaks, throwing around some economic concepts that are pretty much jargon to me. Sometimes I wish I had taken some economics classes in college. Of course, Luke went to business school after college and has an MBA (from Harvard, where else?). He told me he completed his degree a month before his accident.
The lecture is 45 minutes and afterwards, several students rush onstage to ask Luke some questions. I can’t even get near him for at least another twenty minutes and I’m actually kind of tempted to leave and take the T back home when the last student finally leaves.
“Sorry,” Luke says to me. “I told you that you’d be bored.”
“I wasn’t bored,” I say. Okay, I was slightly bored. But he’s so charismatic and such a great speaker, it was sort of fun to watch him, even though I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Liar,” he says. “You were bored out of your mind.”
I watch as he wheels over to the few stairs that Ed had helped him up earlier. I watch in amazement as he does a little wheelie, grabs the railing and bounces down the stairs. “They taught me how to get down stairs in rehab,” he explains. “Up is slightly harder though.”
He adjusts his legs slightly and I try not to watch. He then loosens his tie and undoes the top button on his expensive white shirt. As good as Luke looks in his suit and tie, I think he looks sexier when he’s slightly casual. It occurs to me that I’ve never even seen him in a T-shirt before, at least not since college. Or shirtless.
Shit, why am I thinking about that?
“So,” he says. “Can I treat you to dinner? Make it up to you for having to sit through that?”
“Um…” I want to say yes, but I’m disturbed by the thoughts I’ve been having about Luke lately. I think I’ve been spending too much time with him. I consider telling him I have plans, but then I remember how he always seems to know what I’m thinking and especially when I’m lying.
“Nothing fancy,” Luke adds. “There’s a seedy bar around here that serves, believe it or not, the best lobster rolls in New England. Under ten dollars.”
“I find that hard to believe,” I say.
“I guarantee it,” he says. “You go up to Maine, you won’t find anything better.”
“All right,” I agree reluctantly. I’m hungry, I suppose. A casual dinner won’t be so bad. “But only on one condition: you have to let me treat.”
“That seems fair,” Luke says, grinning at me. “I mean, I bought you a five thousand dollar dress yesterday, so… I guess this will even things up.”
Like I said, I really hate Luke sometimes.
Luke leads me through the Yard and into Harvard Square. One thing that always shocked me about the Square was the amount of homeless people begging in the streets. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, so beggars were not something I was used to. In the beginning, I used to feel obligated to hand out change to everyone who asked me for it, but then I realized I was going through like ten dollars every time I went through the square. I’ve learned to look straight ahead and ignore the pleas for spare change.
The good weather has brought out all the beggars today. There’s a band playing in the middle of the Square with a guitar case open for contributions, then a guy with a violin across the street with a baseball cap filled with coins and dollar bills, and about twenty feet from him, a girl with a banjo and a harmonica taking loose change in a shoe box. I don’t mind the street performers as much, although they make walking through the square a kind of cacophonous experience.
Then there’s the homeless people. They are much more persistent and will hold out a hand and ask for change as you go by. It’s very hard for someone like me, with my upper middle class guilt, to ignore. I could give them each a dollar. It wouldn’t break me. After all, I just wore a five thousand dollar dress last night.
Luke’s presence seems to somehow amplify the begging though. It’s not really clear why. I guess he looks wealthy in his Armani suit, and there’s just something about him that cries out, “I have money!”
He pretty much ignores them until a homeless guy in a wheelchair approaches us. It’s not clear why the homeless man is in a wheelchair. He’s got both his legs and they seem to be moving. In fact, the wheelchair doesn’t even have footrests like Luke’s does, and he’s using his legs as well as his arms to propel himself forward. “Hey, man,” the guy says to Luke. “How about a few dollars, from one crip to another?”
Luke looks the guy up and down, taking in his perfectly functional-looking legs, and the wheelchair that looks like it was swiped from the steps of a hospital. “Why don’t you get a job?” he retorts.
“You know what it’s like, man,” the homeless guy says.
“No, I don’t,” Luke says. He looks pointedly at the guy’s legs. “Why do you need a wheelchair?”
“Because I’m crippled!” the guy says.
Luke shakes his head in disgust. “What you’re doing,” he says, “is despicable. Get the fuck away from me.”
The guy sneers at us as we head down the street. “Yeah, fuck you, you bitter crippled fucker!” he yells after us.
“Unbelievable,” Luke mutters under his breath. “When I think about all the time I spent trying to get out of this chair, then I see some guy who can obviously walk pulling that crap… it’s just… insulting.”
Luke seems troubled for a moment, but then his shoulders relax when we reach the bar and grill. It’s a small, smoky restaurant called Charlie’s, and I find it hard to believe this place serves anything besides greasy burgers. There’s one step to enter, and Luke does a little wheelie to get inside. I’m sort of beginning to think he looks a bit cool when he does that.
“This place has the best lobster rolls in New England?” I ask skeptically. “Do they even have lobster in a place like this?”
“Of course,” Luke says. “This is Boston. They have lobster at McDonald’s.”
Luke’s undone his tie completely and it’s hanging loose around his neck. I would have thought he’d look really out of place in a bar like this, but actually, he seems very comfortable. I guess this is a place he comes to a lot.
“Luke!” A pretty waitress hurries over to us from behind the bar. To my surprise, she bends over and gives him a hug. I feel a twinge of something in my stomach as I watch the embrace. “Oh my god, it’s been ages since we’ve seen you!” she says in a thick Boston accent that I hardly ever hear offices or fancy art gallery parties out in Newton. I suspect she’d say it “Hahvahd Yahd.” Luke, who’s a native of Massachusetts, has no accent to speak of.
“Sorry, Tina,” Luke says, smiling up at her. “I’ve been pretty busy with work.”
“Taking over the world, huh?” Tina says, slugging him in the shoulder. She then turns and smiles brightly at me. “And who’s this?”
“This is my friend Ellie,” he says. And somehow I feel irked that he introduced me as a “friend” in front of this pretty waitress.
“Just a friend, eh?” Tina asks playfully.
“Absolutely,” Luke says.
The bar is narrow and Luke propels himself forward by grabbing onto barstools. The front is all booths, so we have to go to the back before we get to an appropriate seat. After Tina leads us to our table, I give Luke a quizzical look, “How do you know the waitress so well?”
Luke blushes a bit. “Well, we went on a couple of dates a while back,” he admits.
“Seriously?” I look back at Tina again. She’s attractive. Not drop dead gorgeous or anything, but definitely really pretty.
He shrugs as he slips his entire hand between the pages of the menu to open it up. I still haven’t figured out how much he can move his hands voluntarily. He definitely doesn’t have much in the way of dexterity. “I was eating here a lot because I was doing some work in the area at the time. Honestly, I think she just went out with me cuz she felt bad for me that I was eating all alone every day. We had two fairly awkward dates.” He leans forward and says in a low voice, “We didn’t even kiss.”
“Oh,” I say. Why do I feel relieved to hear that?
“Anyway,” he says, “we agreed it wasn’t a match and that was it. She’s married now, just doesn’t wear her ring because she gets better tips this way. But she was having some legal issues about a year ago and I helped her out.”
“Well, aren’t you the altruist?” I laugh.
“What?” he says. “You think I’m a terrible, coldhearted businessman?”
“Sort of,” I admit. “I mean, you don’t get rich by being nice.”
“You don’t think I’m nice?” he asks in a hurt voice.
Actually, the truth is, I think he’s very nice. It’s hard to believe that such an arrogant prick evolved into the man sitting across from me right now. “You’re sort of nice,” I say grudgingly and Luke seems pleased.
We both order double lobster rolls. I’m shocked when a hot dog bun arrives stuffed with juicy lobster. I’m blown away. I take a bite and it’s incredible. I stare up at Luke in amazement. “How did I never know about this place in college?” I ask.
“If we had gone out,” Luke says, “I would have taken you here. Your whole college experience would have been different.”
“I don’t doubt that,” I say. I add with a bit of sarcasm, “I’m sure we would have been a great couple.”
Luke shakes his head. “Boy, you really hated me. I wish you realized… how I felt about you. I guess it’s my fault for being such an arrogant asshole though.”
Luke is looking at me now and his dark eyes seem very intense. There’s a small part of me that does wonder what life would have been like if I had given him a chance. What would 18 year old Luke Thayer have been like as a boyfriend? Would he have doted on me? Would we have had thrilling debates within the confines of his tiny dorm room bed?
But somehow, I’m wondering more what 32 year old Luke Thayer would be like as a boyfriend.
To be continued....