by Victoria L. Popdan

"Eleven-eleven. Make a wish!" I said, looking at the four neon green lines that scored the small, dark dashboard clock. It was more of a conditioned response than a conscious statement.

When I was young there was, I remember, a similar situation ó four bright green cells, each a precise replication of the others, lined up neatly in the upper left corner of the new microwave oven in my kitchen. "All the numbers are the same," my cousin Sarah told me. "You make a wish." And so I had, each time I passed a digital clock that read 11:11, muttering to myself thousands of times since I adopted the practice in grade school, without giving much heed to whether or not I absentmindedly said it aloud.

I rarely reflected on them afterwards, sussing out whether or not my wishes had come true ó I just made them. I made them and left them there, suspended within their temporal limitations, then dashed out from beneath them and into the next moment before they could come crashing down on me. Such is the way of linear time, and of people who are afraid to look back on their pasts.

Concentrating on the green lines now before me, I willed them not to change until I got my wish. Iíd made enough of them; it was about time that I actually got one. Meek, unobtrusive, and not quite sure it deserved to exist, my wish had never had a chance.

"What would you wish for?" Rob asked me, gazing at me with curious eyes behind silver wire-rimmed lenses, nearly obscured by the curved, black brim of a Metallica baseball hat. His body concealed by the seatís high back, his chin resting atop the plush, pale blue covering, his head appeared to be hovering, disembodied, above it.

I looked around at the cavernous interior of the Ford van: the lowered floor, the raised roof, the wide floor devoid of seats, the wheelchair lift. Finally, my gaze came to rest on my puffy, lifeless hands, lying like dead, bloated fish on the black armrests of my chair.

"Well, besides that," he said, before I even looked up at him. We both knew my first wish would be to walk, or at the very least have my hands back so I could play my piano. It was an obvious answer to a stupid question, as far as I was concerned. What else would a quadriplegic wish for?

I shrugged. "I dunno." Was there anything else?

"OK, well look at it this way," he said. "This is your life. This is what you have. All things considered, what do you want from it?"

I wasnít so sure I wanted my life, much less wanting anything from it. An apprehensive, anxious, expectant feeling had opened inside of me over the past few months. It opened inside me, opened my insides, and left me blank, almost hollow at times. Iíd been waiting for something. What, I couldnít say. But the nagging ache wouldnít let up. Any thought I had was choreographed to the ever-present humming ache in the background. Odd feeling it was, often felt like a hunger. A tangible craving. So I ate something, but food didnít touch it. I smoked a cigarette, sometimes two. Nothing. Alcohol only seemed to intensify it. Immersing myself in a book ó an age-old trick, sure to chase away or at least suspend any problem ó was too troublesome to be of any use. More often than not, I ended up frustrated with the once simple tasks of holding open the book or turning the pages.

I wanted all that to stop.

Every now and then, although more than a full year had passed since Iíd last played, I would occasionally get the urge to sit down at the piano and bang out a few tunes. The same subconscious jolt that had always incited me to play would sometimes make its way through to the surface before my conscious brain could censor the notion. Filled with delicious anticipation, already feeling my hands across the keys, I would forget ó until I actually tried to get up. In my head I was already upstairs, sitting down on the creaking, wooden bench ó my body had only to follow. When memory returned, sudden and cruel, I would slump back and think, "Oh." In the beginning I would get angry ó at myself, at the situation, at God ó but as time went on, my reactions mellowed, the realization not quite so excruciating, and I would return to what I was doing with well-practiced indifference.

I wanted that to stop, too.

Beyond the emptiness, beyond the longing, beyond the daily mourning of profound and fathomless loss, I a loneliness so consuming, stifling, it wore away at me, eroding holes bigger than even despair. I could not understand how I could sit, surrounded by people ó family, friends, supporters ó and still feel so completely and utterly alone. I wanted that to stop in the worst way. If I werenít so abysmally lonely, I could very well tolerate the rest of my life, I was sure. There it was: my answer.

"I want someone to love me," I said softly.

And I did. With every pathetic ounce of my pathetic being. Rob sucked in a breath. Surely in disgust, if not in pure surprise at the admission of such a flaw. I refused to raise my head and meet his gaze. If only the emptiness inside would come bursting out, swallow me whole, end my miserable existence. Maybe then the embarrassment would not burn the very air inside the van. Maybe then I would not have to contend with the wretched, painful truth ó that I was broken, useless, unlovable.

"But I love you, Vic," he said. He gazed at me with a softness I had never seen from him before, didnít think was possible. A look that bore no hint of guile, no ulterior motive, just the peace of mind present only in honesty; a look so earnest that for the briefest moment I actually entertained the possibility that he might mean it. Could he? Could he actually, truly love me? But then surprise gave way to realization, and I felt my stomach collapse, felt the urge to vomit my empty insides. Pity. Damn him, I didnít need pity. Tears welled up in my eyes.

"No, no. Not like that," I said, glaring at him. He knew exactly what I meant, but I tossed out an example to him anyway ó not only to drive my point home, but to also make certain there was no miscommunication on either side. "Not that friendly, family crap. Amyís been my best friend since second grade ó I love her dearly. But itís not the same." I frowned. "That isnít what I meant."

I thought briefly back to that conversation with the other boy, the summer before. It was not long after the accident ó I hadnít even made it out of the ICU, hadnít grasped the full implications of my injury, hadnít imagined what time, fate, or life in general had in store for me. I remembered the surreality of the moment, the familiar face, the weight of his words. Heíd said he loved me. Why didnít I just let him? But he hadnít known what he was talking about ó he loved Vicki, his girlfriend, the kid I was before the accident; not Vicki, Frankensteinís monster, Vicki the quad.

But still I almost held my breath for Robís response. Nursing that infinitesimal glint of hope that he would tell me I was wrong, that I had misunderstood, I did not want to breathe lest I miss it and let the momentís possibility escape me forever.

"That wasnít what I meant, either," he said.

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