It's Too Hard to Stay Friends
"I have to tell you something."
I can't get the words out of my head as I push myself down another hallway. I'm panting from the effort of moving so quickly, and I slow down now that I'm sure she isn't following me. Not that I could have done much if she had; I had learned a long time ago that a wheelchair isn't exactly big enough to run down the people in your way, and I'm not near fast enough to get away from a person with working legs. Even if that person does wear shoes that look ridiculously heavy.
"I've been faking it."
I always thought that in those moments when your world turns upside-down, your mind races a million miles a minute. People are always complaining about there being too many things going through their head at once for them to focus. But mine is oddly blank right now. It's like there's nothing to focus on. Like I don't want to comprehend what's just happened. Which, really, I don't.
In a way that I haven't for years, I find myself hoping that this is all a dream and I'll wake up and things will be normal again. I haven't wished that since the accident, when I kept waking up in the hospital room feeling unbalanced and useless. No, that's a lie. I have secretly prayed every night that I will wake up and the car accident and the years that followed would be only a distant nightmare. Every time I am shunned aside for being stuck in the chair, or ignored because even the shortest person in school can see clean over my head, or given pitying looks by the pretty girls I might have been flirting with had I been able to walk up to them; each and every time someone looks at me and sees Wheelchair Kid instead of Artie Abrams, I hope that I am only imagining the whole thing.
And essentially, that's why I'm rolling my way out of the school alone.
"You understand…don't you?"
I don't, I don't understand at all. How can she think that I would? She's chosen her fate, created her disability as a cop out. I hadn't wanted this for myself, ever. I had never even considered in my wildest dreams that it was a possibility for my future before that crushing pain had washed me into darkness and I woke up worthless. And now that she's given up her ruse, she can be normal. Instead of The Girl With The Stutter, she will be just Tina. And until the day I die, I'm gonna be Wheelchair Kid.
The injustice of it all is getting overwhelming and I fight back tears. I normally don't let myself get into the self-loathing, because I know it just makes it harder to deal with, but today I can't help myself. I hate feeling so self-pitying, I really do. But I'm so shaken apart by what she's said that I decide to just be indulgent and ignore my common sense for today. I'll put myself back together tomorrow.
I had thought we had something to share, something really important in common. I joke about a hundred different reasons why being in a wheelchair is so hard, like the fact that my face is level with everyone's butts, (although Finn pointed out that this isn't always a bad thing), or that I can't run away from Rachel when she starts ranting in high pitches (always a bad thing), but they're only jokes. The truth is the worst part is the isolation, the fact that no one understands what it's like to be me. No one else knows what it feels like to be blown off for something out of my control, something that doesn't even affect who I am. I had thought she was the one, that person who could get some of what I was going through. I am crippled physically, and her crippled verbally, but we had each other to sympathize with and that made it easier to live with. Now that that is gone, the hopelessness of my situation crashes over me again almost as strongly as it had that first time eight years ago.
I reached over to hit the silver button on the wall and wait impatiently as the hydraulics push the doors open for me. Outside, the air is getting cold and for a moment I contemplate going back to get the jacket I left in the auditorium, but then decide it's not worth it. I might run into her. Besides, the cold breeze is kind of refreshing and the way it bites at my skin is almost masochistically comforting. The tingling pain on my bare forearms almost balances out the sharp stab in my chest.
It's still half-light outside thankfully, so I set off down the familiar route home, but it feels unfamiliar as I travel it alone. Normally she is beside me or, more often than not, walking behind me, leaning on the handles of my chair and talking to me over my shoulder. Her blue highlighted hair would tickle my collar and we would talk about everything: school, friends, glee, chores, music, movies, the future. I feel the hardness in my chest tighten when I think about the truth I'd never told her, the fact that I had always planned on her and her stutter being a part of my future. Even if nothing romantic had happened, she is – had been – my best friend and I thought that, at least, might last.
I can still remember the day I met her. It was in the seventh grade, a bit more than three years ago, when her family moved to Lima a few weeks into the school year. Most of the people who live here have lived here for their whole lives, going back generations most of the time, so it wasn't that often we got a new kid in town. A new girl who dressed in shredded black clothes and giant safety pins was even rarer.
I had seen her sitting alone in the lunchroom, her head bowed over her tray. The highlights in her hair had been red then, (she'd later confessed to me that she'd done it out of anger at her parents for making her move. After we'd become friends, the streaks had turned blue.) I had gone over to her table and she hadn't looked up until my foot bumped one of the chairs and the noise startled her.
"Hey, mind if I join you? My name's Artie." I had noticed really quickly that she was pretty, and I'd felt uncomfortable as she'd surveyed me. There was something sad about her face, but she had given me a small smile.
Something in my chest suddenly feels extremely heavy and the anger and hurt I have been feeling grows stronger. It had not occurred to me until just now, but as I think back over that meeting I realize that she has been lying to me from the very beginning. Even our introductions had been plagued by that fake stutter that she had created. The rational part of my brain is telling me that should have been obvious, because I would have noticed if she had suddenly developed a stutter, but I'm too busy being mad to give that much thought.
Sullen and resentful, I roll up the ramp to my house and go inside.
"Artie?" My dad pokes his head out of the living room and he looks surprised. "You're home early. I thought you said you were staying out with Tina tonight?"
"Change of plans," I say flatly, in the same matter-of-fact voice I have been using for years to keep people from hearing my emotions. It's a defense mechanism; I'm already vulnerable physically, I don't need people being able to hear when I'm emotionally vulnerable too.
"You should have called me to pick you up," Dad says with a frown.
I just give a dry laugh. "It's no big deal, Dad, I can always use the exercise," I say. "Don't want to start looking like a scrawny nerd boy or something." Dad chuckles and I almost breathe a sigh of relief when I realize I have managed to escape talking to him about my night for now. He'll figure it out eventually, but for tonight I will be free to stew in peace. "Anyway, I've got some homework to do so I'm gonna go work on it."
"Alright, Sport," Dad says and then disappears into the living room again. I grimace at the nickname; he has been calling me that since I was three, back when I had huge dreams of being a baseball star. Even though the name is a bitter, mocking irony of the life I've lost out on, Dad has never stopped calling me it. The only reason I don't say anything to him about it is because I know it is his way of trying to show me that the accident hasn't changed who I am. Athlete or handicapped nerd, I'm his Sport. Talk about bittersweet, right?
Pushing away the new dark thoughts, I wheel into my bedroom. I really do have homework and I twist in my chair to pull my backpack off the handlebars and toss it onto the bed. I tug off my shoes and then reach up to grab the underside of the top bunk. (After the accident they'd installed a metal bar above my bed for me to use but a few years later we figured out that a bunk bed works the same way and makes my room look less like a hospital, so I'd gladly made the change.) With a practiced ease, I flex my arms and heave myself onto the mattress, and then quickly move my grip to the bar on the opposite side of the bed to drag myself the rest of the way up. Pushing myself onto my side, I grab my pant leg and pull my legs, one at a time, onto the mattress as well.
It doesn't take all that long for me to get situated, and I start pulling my books out of my backpack. Maybe I can do some homework to get my mind off the night. I'm already reaching my fill of self-indulgent angst for the month in just this night. I've never been good at staying angry for long, so now all I can feel is the hurt left over. I set my science book in my lap and open it to the chapter we've been studying in class.
Pressed between the pages is a folded piece of lined paper, creased at a funny angle from being stuffed quickly into the pages when the teacher looked my way, and I know before I open it what it is. Alternating lines of black and metallic red cover the paper, scribbled in two distinctly different handwritings as the paper had been passed back and forth between the authors.
This is so boring, do you understand it?
Well then Mr Know-It-All you can tutor me later
Don't I always?
Oh shut up
Hey are you doing anything tonight?
Well I was wondering if you wanted to do something with me…
You mean like a date?
I fold the paper again, not able to read any further than that. I know what comes next, can still recall the way my stomach had leapt and fluttered at the word 'date.' Feeling sick, I tuck the paper back into my textbook and close it, setting it aside. There is no way I'm getting any homework done tonight. I turn off the bedroom light and lay down, not bothering to do any more than take off my glasses. When my dad comes in a little while later to fetch me for dinner, I pretend to be asleep. I'm not in the mood to be around people right now.
For once, I'm grateful that I don't have to go to school tomorrow and see her. Normally the highlight of my day is meeting up with her at the corner a block from my house and going to school together. It is wild and illogical, but I think I'd sort of fallen in love with her at some point. She is – had been – my best friend for three years now and that has been great, and I can't pinpoint exactly when my feelings for her had changed. All I know is that now I can't think of her the same way anymore, not even as a friend. I feel too betrayed.
I resolve then to put her out of my heart. I can be civil, my parents did raise me to be a gentleman, even if no one else in the world respects that anymore. And I really don't want to make glee difficult for either of us, because I know how much we both need it. Maybe we can even be friends again someday. But this crush? That has to be forgotten first.
It takes me two and a half hours of staring into the darkness of my bedroom before I finally fall asleep. And when I do, despite all of my promises and vows, my evil brain still somehow makes me dream of her again.