Eli’s crew broke ground along with the New Year. The site was graded and leveled under the first January blizzards. Heavy machinery dug deep as winter froze the land. The weather represented a challenge but not one that couldn’t be overcome with technology and hard work. In February the temperature dropped and they stopped construction for a few weeks, but Eli had considered this in his calculations. He sat back and waited patiently for the forces of nature to cooperate, while he made the most of the extra free time with Isabel.
They poured foundations as cold lost its strength and waited for the concrete to cure as warmer winds melted the winter away. Eli and Isabel oversaw the site every day, falling into a cozy routine. Morning coffee, warm as Isabel’s body pressed against his chest. Lunch, candid as her tone of voice. The wind against their faces as they watched the building grow. Waking up together more often as the spring approached.
Eli loved sleeping next to her, the ease of her breath leading him to slumber. The soft comfort of her skin, close at hand, made him tuck away his loneliness, forget about his proud “I need no one” attitude. Even though spasms woke him up some nights, and her too, most of the times, spending the night with her by his side was such a nice feeling of safety. To be able to reach across the bed and hold her, or to be awaken by her soft kiss. Oh, how easy it was to get lost in that ease, to let himself be comforted by her sweet presence.
“I’m sorry to keep you up,” he apologized one of those nights in which spasms were particularly bad, making the bed shake along with his body.
Isabel sat up on the bed and robbed his legs. “I don’t mind,” she said with a yawn. “How does the stretching thing work?” she asked.
“I have to bend my joints, move my muscles…” he tried to explain, and after a moment hesitation, he showed her. He grabbed one of his legs with both hands and pulled it up. When he was done stretching that one he went for the other one, but Isabel pushed his hands away gently and took over. She repeated his movements with the second leg and, just like that, Isabel started helping with his range of motion. She did it in the mornings, whenever she’d spent the night; silently asking for his permission after cuddling for a while when they woke up. Strangely enough, Eli didn’t feel weird about it but rather enjoyed it. He liked the fact that she was comfortable touching his body, even the parts that he couldn’t feel, and the casualness which she did it with, made him feel comfortable too.
Still, sometimes spasms made it impossible for Eli to fall asleep, and Isabel was forced to stay awake along with him.
“So…,” Eli hesitated. It was the third night that week dawn had found them awake because of this. “My doctor suggested something to get rid of the spasms,” he started.
“A new drug?” Isabel looked up while rubbing his thigh.
Eli shook his head. “It’s the same drug, but there’s this pump that would administrate it directly.” He stopped to look at her. She was watching him attentive from the foot of the bed, where she had his left leg between her hands. “They would insert it in my abdomen… with surgery,” he waited expecting her expression to change but it didn’t, so he continued. “It’s a machine about this size,” he made a circle shape with his index fingers and thumbs about two inches wide. “It’s called baclofen pump, and it would be inside me… here,” he placed one hand to the left side of his tummy. He waited again, his eyes fixed on hers, looking for any indication of disgust or awkwardness.
“Are there any risks?” she asked, her expression showing interest as if they were discussing the news and not his weird body issues.
“Nothing too bad,” he answered.
“And he’s sure it’ll work?”
He nodded. “It’s supposed to be pretty effective.”
“It sounds great,” she smiled. “Doesn’t it?” she asked noticing his hesitation.
“Yeah, well… but… uh… it would probably stick out,” he huffed looking away now embarrassed.
“So?” she asked.
“You… don’t think that’d be weird?” he said barely looking up at her.
Isabel crawled up the bed and grabbed his hand. “You’re worried about what I would think?” She shook her head. “No, baby, you don’t ever have to worry about stuff like that with me.”
Eli lifted his sight and caught her blue eyes. She always had this certainty in her expression when she said those things to him. Also, she rarely called him “baby," which added to the effect.
“You sound so certain,” he spoke his mind.
“I am certain, Eli,” she stated. “Nothing about you could ever be weird.”
“I think a machine sticking out of my gut would be pretty weird,” he countered.
“It wouldn’t be,” she shook her head again. “If it was part of you, then it would be… mine.”
Eli looked at her without understanding what she was trying to say.
“I don’t know how to explain,” she stopped for a second trying to find the right words. “Every time I learn something new about you, this stuff you call weird, I feel…” she doubted, “…honored,” she seemed pretty satisfied with the word. “Because I know you wouldn’t share these things with just anyone. So, knowing them, knowing they’re a part of you, even if you hate them, it makes me feel privileged to know you better. It makes me feel like you’re mine… Not in a sick possessive way, but…,” she sighed. “Urgh… I don’t know how to explain,” she shook her head faster this time. “It wouldn’t be weird, ok? You don’t have to worry about that,” she gave up on trying to explain.
Eli smiled. He got what she meant. He felt that way too. He felt it when he paid special attention to her gestures; when he made sure she ate something after not seeing her for a while; when he made a joke to cheer her up when her face saddened; when he knew he was the only one who got her, who knew her, who could take care of her; and he felt like a man again, powerful, protective, because she was his, his and no one else’s.
He pulled her in for a long kiss.
“I love you, Isabel,” he said when they parted.
The next morning Eli made an appointment with his doctor. Then he called Matt to let him know, and told him, with pride, that Isabel was coming with him; that he had told her about the baclofen pump and that she actually didn’t mind about those things. He smiled feeling he had somehow triumphed over Matt. Although, truth be told, Matt had backed off somewhat concerning Isabel. Sarah and she had actually become pretty good friends over the winter, leaving Matt alone in his disapproval, and with that, Matt had had to yield and make an effort not to be rude. Eli knew he hadn’t changed his mind, but at least he was keeping it to himself these days.
After hanging up, Eli was so happy, he made dinner reservations for Saturday night at L’Espalier –a nice restaurant he thought would be accessible enough –and then, he did something else he had been putting off for a while: He stopped by the drugstore and filled the prescription he had for Trimix. They hadn’t discussed sex again, but they had been intimate in every other way possible and he felt it was time for this. He was ready.
Saturday night he got into an elegant grey suit with a vest. He wore a white shirt and a silver tie. As he finished up, he looked at himself in the mirror and thought he actually looked good. Maybe not as good as if he were standing, but good enough. He picked Isabel up at her place a little after seven. She was wearing a black coat, unbuttoned, and a purple dress that hugged her body in all the right places. Her hair was loose and she had straightened it. The wind blew strands of it over her face. God, she was beautiful!
He imagined, with equal parts of thrive and fear, what he had planned out for the evening. They would share a special dinner and then head back to his apartment. He had left a bottle of wine cooling by the bed along with a rose, a single one, because he didn’t want to overdo it. He would pour her a glass and toast. Then he would kiss her sweet taste of zinfandel and travel through her body with his lips, undressing her slowly. He would kiss her sex too; caress it with his tongue, but not enough to make her come. And once she was swelled with desire, he would penetrate her, for the first time. Even though he was aware he wouldn’t be able to feel it, the thought of it still turned him on. He swallowed hard at the image and started the car.
They arrived at the restaurant just before eight. It was an elegant place in Back Bay. A hostess in a black dress greeted them and asked for the name to check the reservation. Then she led them to the Corner room, where floor to ceiling windows let in a view of Boylston Street. He had forgotten about the carpet though, and he had to push hard to get across, lifting the front of his chair in a wheelie, no to get stuck. He was concentrating in getting through to their table when he heard a familiar voice.
“Isabel? Oh my god! It must be destiny,” a tall handsome man opened his arms to catch Isabel.
Eli looked up and saw Jason Wells hug her as if they were old friends. No, not friends, but something else. Jason was tall and well built. He was wearing an oxford gray suit that emphasized his elegant features. He had blond hair and blue eyes and a smile that looked like it came out of a toothpaste commercial. Eli let his front wheels drop hard over the carpet, and waited –for too long- for Jason to let go of her. Isabel hadn’t exactly returned the hug, and the minute he released her, she stepped backwards and placed a hand on Eli’s shoulder.
“Eli?” Jason said with far less enthusiasm than he had used to call out Isabel’s name. “Wow, man. It’s been a while.”
Jason Wells had gone to Harvard with Eli and Matt. They had been close friends then, and remained so throughout the years. When Eli had gotten shot, Jason had visited a few times at the hospital and then maybe once while he was in rehab. But then, like most people after his injury, he had faded away from Eli’s life.
“Hi, Jason,” Eli replied stretching out his hand for Jason to shake. “You guys know each other?” Eli asked looking mostly at Isabel.
“Oh, Isabel and I are old friends,” Jason curled up his lips into a suggestive smirk. “Right, Is?”
“Eli and I are together,” Isabel disregarded his comment, smiling herself, but not in return to Jason’s smirk, but rather as if she felt immensely proud of being with Eli.
“So you finally met him,” Jason replied and Eli was sure he hadn’t understood the word “together” to imply their relationship, but simply to state that they were in the same place at the same time. “I can’t believe you’re here. It’s such a small world. I’m telling you it’s destiny. Eli, you’ve no idea what a wonderful woman this is.”
“Eli is my boyfriend,” Isabel clarified and Jason’s smirk dropped instantly. Then he landed his eyes clearly, intently, on her hand that was firm over Eli’s shoulder. He didn’t disguise his feelings as he looked down on Eli and then back up at Isabel.
“Oh! I see,” Jason sounded almost upset. “When did you two meet?” he asked after a few seconds of awkward silence.
“October,” she answered before Eli could.
“In Washington?” Jason asked.
“No, I’d just moved here. We’re finally opening that branch here in Boston,” she said and Jason seemed to know exactly what she was talking about.
“So, you’ve been in the city for over six months?” Eli could hear the resentment on Jason’s voice.
Isabel didn’t answer. The look in Jason’s eyes was clear. ‘Why haven’t you called me?’ his eyes questioned Isabel. She held on tighter to Eli’s shoulder, and he was suddenly really grateful that he could feel that part of his body because it gave him a clue of what Isabel was feeling. Was he her ex? She clearly knew him pretty well, and something else was really strange, Isabel didn’t seem surprised that Jason and Eli knew each other, which meant she knew they were friends. But if that was the case, then how come she had never mentioned him before?
Eli’s thoughts were going 60 miles an hour watching the two of them interact. He had been flattered at first at Isabel’s attitude, apparently showing him off, but then Eli had gotten the impression that she had declared their relationship too fast, probably to keep Jason from saying something inappropriate, since he was clearly into her. Then a sudden realization hit Eli, one that baffled him and almost took his breath away.
“…right Eli?” Isabel’s voice was but a mere echo from the far. “Eli?” she repeated and he heard her this time but didn’t answer. “We should go over to our table.”
Eli couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe; he felt like throwing up. Jason and Isabel knew each other. They had been involved somehow. Worse than that, it wasn’t some crazy coincidence where it turned out that her ex was actually his friend. No, she was fully aware that they knew each other, which meant Jason had told her about Eli before he and Isabel had met. He had been the topic of their conversations, god knows how many times, a fact that Isabel had conveniently neglected to mention. And what was so terrible about that, so bad that it made Eli tremble inside, fear crawling up him, devastating him, was that Jason knew about Eli’s money. Eli felt a raft of cold sweat drop down his spine.
When someone points a gun directly at you, and you look into their eyes and realize they’re willing to use it, you feel a sudden jump inside as your blood pressure drops and the color is drained from your face. You part your lips and feel the air as a cold gust scratches your throat, and the world around you sort of heightens and fades away at the same time, making you terribly alert of your surroundings and yet fully absorbed inside your own mind, your perception of the events unfolding in slow motion before your eyes. This is what fear had felt like to Eli moments before he had been shot and lost the use of his legs forever. That’s what it had felt when he had realized he couldn’t move or feel his body from the chest down. And that’s how it felt right now.
No, god, please no. Eli found himself begging in his thoughts. Please don’t let it be so. She can’t, she can’t be with me because of money, not her, no please. He had no idea how he managed to shake hands with Jayson again and agree to call him some time soon, nor how he’d wheeled through the rough carpet to their table across the room. He could feel his heart pounding inside his chest like the drums that announce an execution.
“How do you know Jason?” he felt his voice rise up as a hoarse cry from the depths of his troubled mind. It surprised him because he didn’t think he could speak.
“My company handled security for one of his buildings back in Washington,” Isabel explained as a waiter handed them their menus. Their table was by the window with the city as a mute stir across the glass.
“Did you know I knew him?” he asked already knowing the answer but waiting to see if she lied.
Isabel nodded. “He was the one who showed me that building of yours I like so much. He told me you designed it for him fresh out of school,” she admitted.
Jayson Wells –a typical junior groomed to eventually take over his daddy’s kingdom –had been the first one to give Eli a chance as an architect. The building Isabel claimed to like so much, the one she had a picture of in her apartment, was an office compound for Jason’s company.
“How come you didn’t tell me that?”
She hesitated but held his intense gaze. Eli’s amber eyes wanted to penetrate the layers of her beautiful face and her self-assured personality, deep into her real intentions.
“I guess I didn’t want you to talk to him about me…” she relinquished finally.
“Because you two were involved?” Eli pressed. “Is he your ex?”
Isabel shook her head. “We went out a few times, that’s it. You don’t have to be jealous.”
“I’m not jealous,” Eli denied.
“Nothing happened between us,” she continued.
“How come?” Jason Wells was handsome, smart, well educated, successful and charismatic, he was all definitions of attractive. And he was clearly into Isabel. So why hadn’t anything happened between them?
“Clearly not because he didn’t want it to,” Eli pushed.
“I didn’t like him,” she sustained.
“Why not?” What was there not to like?
“I guess he’s not my type,” she offered as an explanation and with her words Eli let out a bitter laugh.
“Oh, but I am? Come on! Then tell me, what’s your type?” Eli taunted her.
“I don’t know. I’m just not into rich kids. Ok?”
But the thing was, Jayson was not a rich kid. He was rich, and he was a junior who took over his dad’s busyness. But against all odds, Jayson had been raised right, he wasn’t conceded, he wasn’t spoiled, but rather down to earth and easy going. Eli had to admit, despite himself, that Jayson wasn’t a jerk but a gentleman.
“Then, what are you into, Isabel? Orphans? Disabled men?” Eli raised his voice.
“Maybe…,” she challenged him and Eli looked baffled. “I’m into you. Ok? You’re my type, Eli.”
Eli shook his head. He wasn’t going to fall for it this time, her ‘Oh I don’t mind at all about your disability’ act. The waiter approached them an attempted to take their order. Isabel opened her menu and started reading.
“I’m not hungry,” Eli slammed his menu shot.
“Why are you angry?” Isabel asked him as if it wasn’t obvious.
“Because you lied,” Eli stated.
“I didn’t,” she denied, but then she seemed to ponder over it. When she spoke again she used a calmed voice that somehow made her sound terribly patronizing. “Ok, you’re right. I didn’t tell you about it and you feel like I deceived you. I get it; you’ve every right to feel that way. It wasn’t my intention though and I’m sorry it turned out like that.” She reached for his hand across the table but Eli pulled away.
She didn’t get to tell him how he felt. How conceded of her to state out loud whether he had the right or not to feel a certain way. She was always so very understanding; so unnervingly patient and aware of his needs and feelings. She assumed she always knew what he felt or thought. How presumptuous of her.
“I want to leave,” he said as he pushed himself back from the table.
“What? Eli!” she tried to stop him but he couldn’t stay there another second.
He drove her back to her apartment and rejected all of her attempts to discuss the situation on the way there. Finally, Isabel surrendered and stayed quiet the rest of the way. He parked in front of her building and didn’t even turn off the car while she stepped out. The moment she was on the street he got out of there. He saw in the rearview mirror how she lingered on the street watching incredulously how he got away, perhaps expecting him to turn back. He didn’t.