The next morning Eli left his apartment early. He had it all planed out. Get coffee at that café Isabel liked; pastries at the bakery. He was carrying all the ingredients he needed inside a backpack which hung from the back of his chair, and he waited for a neighbor to leave the building so he could get in unannounced. He had intentionally not texted or called Isabel that morning as he did everyday lately. He wanted to surprise her. The elevator took him to the second floor and he rolled towards the apartment. He knocked on Isabel’s door and waited.
The quiet moment that followed was enough for him to second guess himself. Maybe he shouldn’t have done this. What if she wasn’t even home? What if Isabel hated for him to show up unannounced? But then she opened the door, still on her pj’s and all his fear dissipated because her eyes seemed to genuinely light up at the sight of him. Her lips curled up into a candid smile and the tone of her voice sounded cheerful as she spoke his name into the morning air.
“Eli,” she greeted him and he smiled back relieved.
“Hey,” he caught his breath after the momentary panic. “I hope you don’t mind me showing up like this,” he ventured. “I… have a surprise for you,” he added feeling embarrassed all of a sudden.
“A surprise? Really?” she said leaning over him, her hair falling loose, grazing his arm as she lower down until their lips met. It was a short, fleshy kiss, half sweet and half sexy, as if she had restrained her passion at the last minute, leaving Eli craving for more. He opened his eyes to find Isabel’s retreating face as she pulled back with her eyelids still closed. She bit her lower lip grinning. “No better surprise than to see you here.”
“I brought breakfast,” he felt his cheeks turn red. He lifted the two coffees on his lap to draw attention away from his face. Isabel picked them up and backed off to let him pass. Eli wheeled across the threshold.
Her place looked pretty much the same as the last time he had been there, mostly empty and yet a bit messy, with books and pictures piled up on the floor. Isabel set the coffees down at the small table that apparently served both as a dining room and as a desk, because her laptop was over it along with some papers. She took a chair away to free the spot for Eli and set it by the window; then she put the things from the table over it.
“May I use your kitchen?” Eli asked.
“You want to cook?” Isabel sounded surprised.
“Yeah, I brought all the ingredients.”
“Uhm… I don’t think you can cook here.” Her brows curled up in worry as she said the words.
Eli frowned but held her gaze. He felt insulted; patronized by Isabel for the first time. She had covered it up pretty well up to now but there it was, finally, pity in her eyes. She didn´t think he could cook in a normal kitchen, one that wasn’t modified to suit his needs. So she did see him as a cripple after all.
“What were you planning on making?” Isabel asked him disregarding his expression; the look on her own face clouded with concern.
He didn’t answer. Honestly, he felt like walking away all of a sudden. Damn her present, damn his surprise, damn her, damn himself.
“Eli?” she called him back to reality.
“It doesn’t matter,” Eli turned his chair around to scape her blue pitiful eyes.
“I’m sorry, Eli, but I don’t own a single pan or pot. Hell, I don’t even know if the stove works.” She explained. Eli used his left hand to move one wheel in order to turn back around while she continued. “And I don’t have so much as salt, let alone cooking oil or any utensils.”
Was she for real? Did she really not have a single pan or was she trying to mend things because she had realized what Eli was thinking. Isabel stared at him silently for a few seconds. Eli guessed she was expecting him to say something, but before he could figure out what to say she spoke again.
“We can go back to your place,” she suggested. “Or to a restaurant. Whatever you want. Just let me get changed.”
“No,” Eli shook his head. “We have to stay here. I’m expecting a delivery.”
“A delivery?” Isabel asked intrigued.
“Yeah… It’s your Christmas present,” he almost whispered feeling embarrassment warm his cheeks. He didn’t understand why he felt so embarrassed to be giving her a present.
“Oh really?” she said excited like a child. “What is it?”
“It’s a surprise,” Eli replied not quite over the fact that Isabel thought he wouldn’t be able to use her kitchen.
“But you’ve already surprised me,” she countered with a pout.
“Do you really not own a frying pan?” he said refusing to fall for her playful tone.
Eli rolled to the kitchen. He couldn’t help himself. He was going to start opening cabinets, but then he stopped. If she was telling the truth she would think he was crazy and rude. And if she was lying, if she thought he was too crippled to cook there… If he opened a door and found a pan… That would be worse, so much worse…
He looked up at her. She was giving him a strange look. Eli’s behavior had caught her off guard. Was she thinking he was acting crazy? Was he acting crazy?
She turned around and started opening cabinet doors. Empty. Empty. Two dishes in one of them. Empty. She moved to the ones over the counter, the ones he couldn’t reach. Two glasses, two cups. Empty. A bottle of scotch in the last one. Eli looked up at her again, afraid to find anger in her face.
“Sorry,” she said cheerfully, not angry. “I told you I don’t cook.”
“Don’t you eat either?”
Isabel gave him a long look and after a moment of silence she shook her head.
“Do you always go out?” he asked trying not to sound rude this time.
Isabel shrugged. “Not really.”
Eli fixed his hazel eyes on hers, questioning her silently.
“I… I don’t really eat when I’m not with you,” she said finally. “I’m not an anorexic or anything. I just…”
“You don’t eat anything?”
“I…” she sighed.
Eli wheeled closer to her and reached out for her hand.
“Don’t think I’m crazy, will you,” she said and Eli felt she was almost pleading for his acceptance.
“I would never think that,” he whispered squeezing her hand inside his. “I was wondering how you were so thin eating as much as you do when you’re with me,” he joked to lighten the mood.
She gave him a sad smile in return.
“Let’s just drink the coffee. I brought pastries from that place you like,” he said guiding her back to the table.
About an hour later, the bell rang and a delivery man showed up with a large box.
“Where do you want it?” the guy asked.
Isabel stepped forward to look at the box.
“It’s a TV,” Eli explained. “A smart TV.”
Isabel smiled. “The bedroom, I guess,” she pointed towards a door at the end of the hall. Then, as the delivery guy carried the box in, she turned around and kissed Eli. “Wow,” she said. “That’s a big present.”
“It was either that or furniture,” Eli joked.
“Does that mean you don’t want me to come over to your place to watch TV anymore?” she asked with a smirk.
“Not at all,” Eli replied. “But I thought you should have one until you move in with me,” he replied only half joking.
Isabel smiled broadly. “So it’s only for a little while, right?” she responded in the same frisky tone.
They went into the bedroom where the guy was already opening the box. It was the first time Eli had been inside Isabel’s bedroom and he looked around in surprise. Unlike the rest of her apartment, the bedroom didn’t look like she had just moved in and hadn’t finished unpacking. It had a mahogany bedroom furniture set. There was a double bed with purple sheets, it wasn’t made. Two night tables on the sides and a dresser. The walls were covered with framed photographs. Eli stared bluntly at them. A much younger Isabel was under the arm of a big guy, maybe a couple of years older than her. There was a cold shore in the background. The same guy and another one who looked like him were hugging her on another picture. An older couple stood in winter clothes under some trees in the third one. And then all of them together outside a stone house, Isabel at the center, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. The older man holding a large fish. The older woman and one of the younger guys sitting on a couch, big smiles on both their faces. Eli stopped.
Do you want it on top of the dresser?” the guy asked them.
Eli looked at Isabel, she had sat over the bed and was frowning, looking straight at Eli.
“Sure,” he replied because she didn’t.
The guy set the screen over the dresser and got busy pulling cables out of the box.
“Thank you,” Isabel finally spoke after the TV was installed and Eli had tipped the guy and led him outside. She was still sitting on the bed, her eyes looking down. “I love it.” Her voice sounded sad.
“Are you ok?” Eli replied.
“They’re my family,” she offered as an explanation.
“You don’t have to… I should’ve asked you first instead of coming in here unannounced. I didn’t know…”
“No, Eli…” she interrupted. “I know I haven’t told you about them, but it’s not because I don’t trust you… It’s just hard to talk about it.”
He pushed his rims and parked his chair close to the bed. He put a fist over the mattress and swung his body to transfer so he was sitting next to her on the foot of the bed. He had nothing to rest his back against, so he had to keep one arm down to keep his balance, but he used the other one to hug Isabel the best he could.
“That’s Liam,” she pointed towards one of the pictures once Eli let her go. “And that’s Cullen. They’re my older brothers. Cullen was two years older than me and Liam two years older than him. I’m the little sister,” she smiled wryly. “Those are my parents. My dad was a fisherman. That one was his boat,” she said pointing to one of the pictures that showed a red and white fishing boat. “Cullen got involved with some bad people…” she stopped and took a deep breath. Eli got the impression she was gathering up the courage to speak. “The kind of people you don’t mess around with. Liam tried to get him out, which just pissed them off. I’m not sure how things went down exactly; I was actually oblivious of the whole thing, until one night my father told my mother there was a hit on Liam and Cullen. The bloody IRA had ordered their death. And this is Northern Ireland I’m talking about. My da’ knows there’s nothing he can do against them, but he’s not about to let his sons die. So he packs us up. Two bags, that’s it. All that can fit in the boat. Leaves everything else behind. Me mom’s crying all the way to the piers about her house. ‘It’s just stones, woman,’ my father kept saying. So he puts us all in the boat and sails off.”
Eli could hear her Irish accent for the first time as she progressed with the story. She wasn’t looking at him but at some random point on the wall in front of them, the lilt of her voice swaying like the rhythmic rocking of the sea. He heard her swallow hard and brace herself for what happened next.
“Me mother asks where we are going to go, what we’re going to do, what’s going to happen if they find us. And Liam and Cullen are all quiet. I can see they feel ashamed, guilty. I walk over to Liam and put my arm around him, sitting on the deck as the sun goes down. We stay there for a long time. Mother’s finally gone quiet. And it starts to rain. Father comes out to get us off the deck. There’s thunders now and suddenly the mother of all storms is falling over us. I’ve never been out in the sea at night. The boat is rocking like crazy and I ask myself if this little thing is meant to be out so far into the ocean.”
Isabel’s breath had quickened and Eli wondered if she would be able to finish the story. He had already guessed what happened next and he put his arm over her leg, debating whether to hug her again, but he didn’t want to interrupt.
“The boat didn’t hold. I don’t know what my father was thinking,” she continued but Eli could see every word represented an effort. She took shallow breaths, and then she closed her eyes. “The water was freezing. It was summer, but the water was so cold. And the waves were strong. I struggled to keep my head above the water. Liam was trying to reach me but I kept drifting away. Before long I couldn’t see any of them. I yelled their names but thunders drowned my voice. Uh…”
Tears scaped her closed eyelids. “Uh…” she attempted to speak again. “Uh…” she gasped for air as if she was drowning all over again. Eli held her now, wanting her to stop. He didn’t want to hear the rest of the story. He didn’t want her to remember it. He threw his arms around her, forcing her to support his full weight, and she clenched his shirt tight over his back and wept.
After a few minutes, she raised her head from Eli’s chest where she had buried it and, without letting go of him, she spoke over his shoulder.
“A beacon of light guided me towards the shore. But I was too weak to follow it. I lie down over the water, as if it were a bed, and fell asleep, or unconscious, I don’t know. The coast guard fished me out. When I woke up I begged them to go back. They did. But too much time had passed. I saw the call from the lighthouse fade away with the morning sun, as we returned to shore.”
She pushed backwards from him, slowly, giving him time to put and arm down and regain his balance. Her beautiful eyes were still wet, but she wasn’t crying anymore.
“They never found them. They looked, but nothing…” She wiped her tears with the back of her hands. “It’s been twelve years. I’ve never told anyone about it before,” she said now looking straight at Eli, regaining her calm countenance. The Irish accent slowly fading from her voice. “I used to be so angry. Both my brothers were strong swimmers. Stronger than me. Better than me. It doesn’t make sense that I made it and they didn’t. My father wasn’t that old, but he probably would’ve tried to save my mother. I can understand how they would be more likely to drown, but not Liam and Cullen. I… it makes no sense. It seems so unfair that I lived and they died. It took me years to understand that there was no reason. That the world doesn’t work like that. That life isn’t fair, and neither is death. At first I wanted to die too. Sometimes I still do. But now I feel I owe it to them to live. So I try to enjoy every moment as if it was the last one. It sounds like a cliché, I know. But that’s how I fight the sadness away. I force my mind to be in the present. I focus on what I feel, what I see, what I taste. And that keeps my mind from going back to that moment, from drowning all over again. Still, even after all these years it’s hard not to be sad,” she stopped and took a deep breath. “It’s been easier since you’re around. When I’m with you, I don’t have to try so hard.”
Eli didn’t know what to say. Usually he was on the other side of a sob story. ‘I’m sorry’ was what people usually said to him, about his parents’ death, about him being paralyzed. But he hated that. He hated that phrase, and yet, it seemed to be the only thing he could say. Isabel spoke again before he could open his mouth though.
“It was Fanad Head Lighthouse. The one I saw when I was drowning. The one you have a picture of. I have often thought of it as a sign of life, of hope. It seems so meaningful that you have that picture. That you were there, that you took that photograph yourself. You’re my lighthouse. You’re the beacon of light that guides me back to life.”
Eli felt incredibly flattered to hear those words. He couldn’t have thought of a better metaphor to explain what Isabel meant to him, how she saved him with her presence, how she turned him back to life. He never would’ve guessed that the feeling was mutual, that he represented that same thing to her. And although her story had suddenly sprang light on Isabel, and knowing this explained so many things about her, he suddenly realized how little he knew of this woman, how much of a mystery she was to him.