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If It Comes Back

Charles saw them both at the same time: the small white bird floating from among the park trees and the girl wheeling down the walk.1 The bird glided downward and rested in the grass; the girl directed the chair smoothly along the sunlit, shadowy walk.2 Her collapsible3 metal chair might have been motorized4: it carried her along so smoothly. She stopped to watch the ducks on the pond and when she shoved the wheels again, Charles sprang to his feet. "May I push you?" he called, running across the grass to her. The white bird flew to the top of a tree.

It was mostly he who talked and he seemed afraid to stop for fear she'd ask him to leave her by herself. Nothing in her face had supported the idea of helplessness conveyed by the wheelchair, and he knew that his assistance was not viewed as a favor.5 He asked the cause of her handicap; not because it was so important for him to know, but because it was something to keep the conversation going.

"It was an automobile accident when I was twelve," Amy explained. "I was readingto my younger brother in the back seat and suddenly my mother screamed and tried frantically6 to miss the truck that had pulled out in front of us. When I woke up in the hospital, my mother was screaming again outside the door. This time she was trying to escape the fact that I would never walk again."

"Pretty rough on both of you.7 What about your brother?"

"He came out of it a little better than I did; at least he was dismissed from the hospital before I was. It took us all a long time to accept and adjust."

They went for lunch, and he would have felt awkward except that she knew completely how to take care of herself. It was he who seemed clumsy and bumped into a table; she who moved competently through the aisle.8

"Do you live with someone?" he asked the next day for he'd made a point of9 asking to meet her again.

"Just myself," she answered. He felt a qualm10 in his stomach, and it was more in memory of his own loneliness than anticipation of hers.11

He came to like to feel the white handles in his grasp, to walk between the two white-rimmed metal wheels. And he grew almost more familiar with the slight wave at the back of her hair than with her eyes or her mouth. The chair was a moveable wonder; he loved the feeling of power and strength it gave him for so little exertion.12 Once, he said to the wave at the back of her hair, "I hope I'm the only chair-pusher in your life," but she had only smiled a little and her eyes had admitted nothing. When he looked up, he noticed a white bird flying from one tree toanother, tracing their route with them.

She cooked dinner for him once in June. He expected her to be proud of her ability to do everything from her seat in the wheelchair ?nbsp;and was faintly disappointed to see that she would not feel pride at what was, for her, simply a matter of course.13 He watched his own hand pick up the salt shaker14 and place it on one of the higher, unused cabinet shelves, then awaited her plea for assistance. He didn't know why he'd done it, but the look in her eyes a moment later gave him a shock in his easy joy. He felt as though he were playing poker and he had just accidentally revealed his hand to the opponent.15 To make her forget what he'd done, he told her about the little white bird in the park.

"I've seen it, too," she said. "I read a poem once about a little white bird that came to rest on a window sill and the lady who lived in the house began to put out food for it. Soon the lady fell in love, but it was a mismatched love. Everyday the little bird came to the window and the lady put out food. When the love af
fair was over, the little white bird never returned, but the woman went on puttin out the crumbs16 every day for years and the wind just blew them away."

In July he took her boating frequently. She prepared a picnic lunch each time, and he manned17 the sails. The most awkward event of this, she felt, was the loading and unloading18 of herself. For Charles, however, these "freight handlings", as she came to call it, seemed to be the highlight of the outings. He appeared to take great delight in wheeling her to the end of the pier19, picking her up out of the chair, balancing himself to set her into the boat, then collapsing the chair and setting it on its side on board. On the first few outings, she had felt distinctly ill at ease at having been placed helplessly in a spot from which she could not move herself. It occurred to her, too, that she was unable to swim, should the boat turn over.20 Charles, who adapted himself marvelously to the captain'srole, was completely oblivious21 to her discomfort; she noted with a returning sense of helplessness how much he enjoyed being in control. When he called for her one day in early August with a brand new captain's hat cocked atop22 his soft brown hair, all her emotions revolted at the idea of another day trapped on the wooden seat over the water ?nbsp;and she refused to go.

They would, instead, she said, go for a walk in which she would move herself by the strength of her own arms and he would walk beside her. He finally agreed, buthis displeasure grew with each step; this was a role he didn't want to play.

"Why don't you just rest your arms and let me push you?"

"Your arms'll get sore; I've been helping you do it for three months now."

"I wheeled myself for twelve years before you came along ?nbsp;I doubt that my arms have forgotten how."

"But I don't like having to walk beside you while you push yourself!"

"Do you think I've liked having to sit helpless in your boat every weekend for the past two months?"

For a moment he was stunned into silence by this new learning. Finally he said quietly, "I never realized that,Amy. You're in a wheelchair all the time — I never thought you'd mind sitting in the boat. It's the same thing."

"It is not the same thing. In this chair, I can move by myself; I can go anywhere I need to go. That boat traps me so I can't do anything ?nbsp;I couldn't even save myself if something happened and I fell out."

"But I'm there. Don't you think I could save you or help you move or whatever it is you want?"

"Yes, but Charles ?nbsp;the point is I've spent twelve years learning to manage by myself. I even live in a city that's miles from my family so I'll have to be independent and do things for myself. Being placed in the boat takes all that I've wonaway from me.23 Can't you see why I object to it? I can't let myself be at anyone's mercy — not even yours."

They continued down the path in silence as his feelings boiled within him and finally ran over the edge of his control: "Amy, I need to have you dependent upon me. I need your dependence upon me." And, as if to punctuate24 his desire, he took the familiar white bars in hand and pushed her rapidly along so that her own hands came off the wheels and rested in her lap. The wave at the back of her hair did not show the anger in her eyes, and it was just as well for it was an anger he would not have understood.

She would not answer her telephone the next morning but in his mails that afternoon came an envelope that he knew had come from Amy. The handwriting was not beautiful, but it was without question hers. Inside was only a card on which she had written:

     If you want something badly enough,
  You must let it go free.
  If it comes back to you,
  It's yours.
  If it doesn't,
  You really never had it anyway.

He ran out of his apartment, refusing to believe that Amy might no longer be in her home. As he was running towards her apartment, he kept hearing a roar in his ears: "You must let it go free; you must let it go free."

But he thought: I can't risk it, she is mine, can't just let go, can't give her a chance not to belong to me, can't let her think she doesn't need me, she must need me. Oh God, I have to have her.

But her apartment was empty. Somehow in the hours overnight, she had packed by herself and moved by herself. The rooms were now impersonal; their cold stillness could not respond when he fell to the floor and sobbed.

By the middle of August he had heard nothing from Amy. He lay often on his bed with her letter on his chest and counted the minute25 cracks in his ceiling; he went often to the park but scrupulously26 avoided looking for the white bird. Sometimes he would sit for hours there in the wind under a tree and not even notice that he was outside, that life went on around him.

September came and had almost gone before he finally received an envelope of familiar stationery. The handwriting was not beautiful but it was without question hers. The postmark was that of a city many miles distant. With a shock of feeling returning to his heart, he tore open the envelope and at first thought it was empty. Then he noticed on his desk a single white feather that had fallen from it. In his mind, the white bird rose in flight and its wings let fly one feather. Were it not for the feather lost in departure, no one would have known that the white bird had ever been. Thus he knew Amy would not be back, and it was many hours before he let the feather drop out of his hand.