He got to his apartment and rolled straight for the bar in the living room, grabbed a bottle and poured himself a full glass of scotch. His mind was racing, trying to make excuses for Isabel, to come up with a plausible reason why she would’ve kept that from him. She had had several chances to mention it. It wasn’t like it had never come up. She had talked about his first building; he had told her about college. He could think of at least five occasions in which the topic would’ve been relevant and during which she clearly decided not to tell him about Jayson. He gobbled down the liquid from the glass and felt his throat burn as he washed it down. He poured another one.
He imagined them talking about him, perhaps over dinner or drinks. Jayson had probably told her about his orphan friend from college who designed a building for him, and who, by the way, happened to have inherited a large sum of money. Rotten luck, he imagined them commenting, when Jayson got into the shooting part, the crippling part of the story. Had she decided right then and there that he was an easy target, or had the thought come later?
Then he scratched it all from his mind and chided himself, because there was no way, no possible way that thought had ever crossed Isabel’s mind. Not the Is who loved his food and admired his designs. Not the Is who he could talk to for hours, or even better, stay quiet next to her without it being awkward. The Isabel who hugged him with such tenderness and touched him with such urge. Not the Isabel whose desire he had tasted in his mouth, so clear and tangible as he had felt her humid insides with his fingers. No woman could fake that.
As the second glass emptied, the fact remained that she hadn’t being honest, and that made him wonder what else she could’ve kept from him, what else she could be lying about. Isabel wasn’t exactly transparent; she had always had this mysterious aura about her, which was part of her appeal, but which –right about now- seemed pretty damn suspicious.
Alcohol didn’t quiet down his mind. All the unanswered questions about that beautiful woman were hammering him. Going back to it, Eli realized that he had always doubted her; there was always something that didn’t add up; she was just too good to be true. There was no way this would last, it couldn’t. It was better to end it before things escalated. And yet, he had found himself incapable of doing so again and again. He was scared to admit it but he had started to need her. Need her? He hadn’t needed anyone since he was 16, he hadn’t needed anyone when they had told him his parents were dead, or for the following years when he was handed over to the system. He hadn’t needed anyone when he had woken up on that bed unable to feel his body, nor when the doctor had told him he would never walk again; not when even sitting up represented the largest of efforts. He hadn’t needed anyone when Melany had walked away. He had done it all by himself, he had always been alone, as a teenager, in the hospital, in rehab, on the ground. He was strong, he had returned to his apartment, to his job, he had re learnt how to drive, how to live…
Eli felt the air thickening and he opened his mouth trying to grasp for it. Bullshit. After being shot, he had been as scared as a child, he still was. He was shaking. When they’d told him, Matt had taken his hand and he had held on to it as a drowning man to a piece of wood. He was full of it. It was all pretense; an act he put on for everyone as well as for himself. He had looked Matt in the eye and told him with absolute confidence he was perfectly capable of living alone, he had had everything adapted, his apartment was accessible; but that first night, practically the second Matt went out the door, he had started hyperventilating. Was he hyperventilating now? He felt exactly the opposite way. He couldn’t breathe; his chest felt heavy and it costed him great effort to inflate it and suck up air.
He set his glass down hard over the bar’s wooden edge and felt his sight deem. Isabel’s intriguing face flashed across his eyes, and then the memory of her warm touch erased it. He had done without that kind of touch for so long, not even realizing how much he craved for it. He had being so despaired before she had come into his life. He felt like he had been hanging from a cliff, barely holding on to the stones with the tip of his finger, his nails scratching the rocky surface not to fall. And then suddenly a rope had been thrown at him, for him to grab on and pull himself up. It had rescued him, saved his life, but not quite all the way, he was still hanging from it, crawling up the cliff towards the edge. Isabel was the rope and if she left, if it turned out she didn’t love him, if she was using him, deceiving him…
As he shook the bottle of scotch to extract the last drops, his head feeling light and his torso unstable, he came to a shattering conclusion: It made no difference if Isabel was a gold digger; if she didn’t really love him, if she had been pretending all along. It made no difference because he wouldn’t end things with her. He couldn’t. He needed her. He needed her like air itself. The heat her body emanated by his side on the bed. The gentle and casual touch with which she grabbed his collar when she kissed him. The feel of her cheek over his chest as they lay. The look in her eyes as she sat across from him on the table. No, he couldn’t send her away. He didn’t care why she was with him as long as she didn’t leave.
He lifted the bottle and threw it hard into the empty space. It crashed on the wall across the room and bounced down, shattered and several small pieces of glass scattered across the hardwood floor. How could he even consider that? How could he touch her and let her touch him knowing she cared only about the money? What did she really think of him, of his shattered body, of his spasms? How could he pretend along with her just to keep her near? But somehow being without her was even more unthinkable.
He woke up the next morning on the floor by his bed. He didn’t remember getting there. Presumably, he had been too drunk when he had attempted to transfer into bed. His chair was lying sideways over the floor a few feet away from him. He looked down at himself, already knowing what he would probably find, and then felt with the palm of his hand the wet stain in his pants. His head was pounding.
He considered for a moment how to get up and into bed. Should he take his wet clothes off while still on the floor? Should he get straight into his chair to go clean himself up? But he felt so weak, and the mere thought of it tired him. So he set his head down again, using his arm as a pillow and just stayed there. He fell back asleep until a buzzing sound woke him up. He heard it from the distance and struggled to concentrate enough to pinpoint where it was coming from. Finally he found it under himself. If he had been able to feel his legs he would’ve surely felt his phone vibrate against his thigh. By the time he pulled it out, the screen showed a miss call from Matt, he used his finger to slide it and saw another miss call, this one from Isabel and a couple of messages from her as well. It was almost noon. Isabel had called him earlier, just once, and then she had sent a couple of messages trying to apologize and then another one asking if he was ok. The last one read “I know you’re upset and don’t want to talk right now, just let me know if you’re ok and I’ll back off and let you be.” It had been sent at 11:21.
He pulled his legs to the side to be able to roll on his back and change his position. It didn’t really make much difference for him to be lying on the floor or on the bed, since he couldn’t feel most of his body. If he had had a pillow he would’ve been just as comfortable. He just wanted to lay there and fall back asleep; forget about everything that had happened the night before, damn his stench, damn his routine. And for a while he indulged himself, staying motionless on the ground, face up, staring into the ceiling, his mind clear now, not drifting away into torturous thoughts, but a dark hollow feeling on his chest.
He didn’t fall back asleep though. His amber eyes were wide awake. About half an hour later, Matt called again, but Eli didn’t pick up. Once the phone stopped buzzing he turned it off. He imagined the conversation he would surely have with Matt and a tide of bad feelings and tormented images rose to his mind. He didn’t want to think about it, he didn’t want to feel. He used all the willpower he had left to take his right leg and cross it over his left one to then roll flat on his stomach. His legs didn’t follow all the way, but it was good enough. He stretched his arms forward and pull himself towards his night table. He was doing an army style crawl to advance over the wooden floor. Once he was close enough, he pulled himself up on his elbows and opened the drawer to pull out some pills. He ended up dropping the entire drawer on the floor, letting many pill bottles and boxes fall and scatter across the room. He looked for the sleeping pills and swallowed two of them dry before dropping his head down and settling on that position to sleep.
It took a while for the pills to kick in but once they did he slept straight for hours. It was dark when a loud cry awoke him.
“Eli!” Matt raced across the room to kneel down next to him and immediately pulled his cellphone out. “No, no, no, please, Eli,” his pleading voice brought Eli out of his slumber.
“Matt,” Eli grabbed his hand and heard how Matt let out air relieved somewhat although not all the way.
“It’s ok, body, I’m calling an ambulance.”
“What?” Eli held himself up on one elbow while pushing the hand Matt was holding the phone with, away from his ear. “What’re you doing? I’m alright.”
Matt ignored him as if he was being incoherent and pulled his arm back up to resume the call. Eli yanked the phone away from him. “I said I’m alright,” he insisted.
Matt stared at him, and Eli held his look undaunted until he realized he was on the floor, stinking like piss, his chair flipped over and beyond his reach, the drawer turned over on the floor, medicine scattered everywhere. Matt looked like he was about to cry. He was clenching his fingers around Eli’s forearm as if he didn’t want to let go.
“Oh, Matt, no. It’s not what it looks like,” Eli started, but Matt didn’t listen, instead he reached to take his phone back. Eli pulled it away. “No, man, I didn’t try to… I didn’t take anything, ok,” he said while rolling on his back and pulling himself up to a sitting position maintaining his balance with his hands. Matt seemed skeptical. “I swear. It’s not what it looks like.”
Matt didn’t answer. He was still staring with glassy eyes. He made a second attempt to retrieve his phone. Eli didn’t give it back.
“I’m sorry, Matt. I got drunk and fell down while trying to transfer into bed,” he explained not even bothering to try to come up with an excuse. “All I took was a couple of sleeping pills. Two, I swear, that’s it.”
Matt squinted at him. He was probably trying to decide whether or not Eli was telling the truth. Then he looked down into the scattered pills.
“Matt, look at me,” Eli said very slowly. “I didn’t try to kill myself. I didn’t take anything. I just drank too much.”
“There’s glass all over the living room,” Matt finally spoke but his voice quivered.
Eli sighed. “Yeah, I broke a bottle of scotch,” he admitted.
Eli hesitated but then told the truth. “On purpose. I threw it.”
“Why?” Matt asked just above a whisper.
“’cause I was pissed off.”
“Did you have a fight with Isabel?”
Eli looked away.
“Sarah talked to her this morning and said she sounded strange,” Matt continued. “And then you didn’t answer my calls. I can put two and two together,” he made a pause waiting for Eli to look back up at him. “I know you love her, but really, Eli? You’ve other people who care about you. I know I haven’t been the most supportive friend lately but you can still talk to me about stuff, you don’t have to… I can’t believe you…” Matt’s voice cracked a little and he stopped.
“I told you, Matt. I didn’t take anything…”
Matt gave him a look that seemed to pierce right through him.
“Look at me Matt, I got drunk, took a couple of sleeping pills, fell down trying to transfer. That’s it. I swear,” Eli explained again slowly.
After analyzing him for a few seconds, Matt seemed to finally believe him. “Damn it, Eli. You scared the shit out of me,” he sighed and then stood up, placed himself behind him and grabbed him from under his armpits to pull him up.
Eli wanted to protest but Matt was already lifting him and he didn’t really have the energy to fight him. So he just let himself be pulled up and set down over the bed like a rag doll. Matt fell back over the mattress as well, he was a strong man, but Eli knew his six feet two made him pretty hard to lift.
“What did you fight about?” Matt asked him, still lying face up on the bed.
“I won’t nag you about it. I promise,” Matt insisted.
Eli shook his head. He didn’t want to tell Matt about it. He didn’t even want to think about it. Besides, the moral hangover was starting to kick in. He was a mess, he had slept on the floor, Matt had literally picked him up. He had pissed himself and he was sure his friend could tell. Eli couldn’t feel whether his clothes were wet, but he could smell the stench.
He was lying on the bed in an awkward position, his legs dangling from it and his body transversal over the mattress right where Matt had set him down. He turned his head to look at Matt. They were so close to each other that parts of their bodies were grazing. Eli couldn’t feel that though, but Matt surely could.
“I should get cleaned up,” Eli said looking up into the ceiling.
“I’ll help you,” Matt offered sitting up on the bed.
“Can you get my chair for me?”
Matt got up from the bed and picked the wheelchair up and pushed it towards the bed. Then, without asking, he tried to unbuckle Eli’s belt.
“Don’t,” Eli pushed his hand away.
Matt looked hurt, as if Eli had just insulted him. “Why don’t you trust me?”
“It’s not about trust.” Eli threw his arm hard to reach the edge of the bed, but it was beyond his reach. He tried again, this time lifting himself up on his elbows and then pulled himself up to a sitting position. He kept his hands down to maintain his balance.
“I’m just trying to help,” Matt sounded upset.
“I know,” Eli soothed his own tone.
“Then why do you keep pushing me away?” Matt confronted him.
“I’m not pushing you away. Don’t you think it’s humiliating enough that you found me on the floor? That you know I pissed myself? I don’t need you cleaning me up. I may not have a lot of dignity left in me, but can’t you just let me keep that much.” Eli rammed at him, losing all calm.
Matt was quiet for a moment. Then he sat down on the bed.
“This is me, Eli. We’re like brothers. You don’t have to be ashamed with me,” Matt almost whispered.
“Why can’t you understand? Of course I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed all the time. Being a cripple is fucking humiliating,” Eli raised his voice. Why didn’t he understand? Why did he need to say it aloud? Isabel understood. She spared him the humiliations, she didn’t push him to talk about stuff he didn’t want to. She looked the other way when he needed to deal with this stuff. She let him be the one to show her things, only when he was ready. She didn’t make him feel like a cripple.
But then again, maybe Isabel didn’t care, maybe she was just pretending.
They stopped arguing. Eli took a shower while Matt cleaned up the broken glass from the living room. They had dinner, although Eli didn’t really have an appetite and, after much hesitation from Matt’s part, he left the apartment and Eli went to bed. He felt exhausted, drained. He resisted the urge to take another couple of pills to fall asleep; instead, he laid back and covered his eyes with his forearm trying to wipe Isabel’s image from his head.
Monday morning he didn’t feel like going to work. He didn’t feel like dealing with anything. He was afraid Isabel would try to see him at the office. Still he forced himself to get out of bed, probably more for Matt’s sake than his own. He didn’t want what happened on Sunday to repeat itself. He got through his morning routine and gobbled down a glass of scotch. Yeah, drinking alone at eight o’clock in the morning. By the time he transferred into his car, he was already tired, and almost fell on his butt while lifting his body towards the sit. He was halfway to the office when he decided to turn around and head to see Jayson instead. He couldn’t take it anymore. He needed to know.
He drove downtown to Jayson’s building, the one Eli had built for him. He hadn’t been there since before getting shot, and being there brought all kinds of feelings. He had been a different man when he had built it. Getting inside he noticed now the narrow hallways and the steps everywhere. He hadn't been that concerned with accessibility back then. He thought about Isabel and how the fact that she had a picture of that building had led him to believe she was really into him; how he had understood a little why she would like him, thinking she was drawn to his talent as an architect. Now, he was not so sure. It could all have been a ruse, some trick planned out. It was such an unbearable idea.
Jayson was surprised to see him. Eli could tell. Still he greeted him kindly and invited him into his office. They shared some small talk pretending to catch up like old friends, before an awkward silence announce his cue to reveal his true motive for being there.
“So, you know Isabel,” Eli started.
“Yeah…” Jayson replied. “You guys are together now.” Jayson’s tone let out a sign of sadness and defeat.
“How do you know her?” Eli asked.
“She handled security for my branch in Washington,” Jayson explained even though he had already in the restaurant.
“And you were…” Eli hesitated, “involved?”
“We were never together. If that’s what you’re wondering,” Jayson shifted on his seat clearly uncomfortable discussing the matter.
“Why not?” Eli couldn’t help but ask.
“Not for lack of trying on my part. That’s for sure,” Jayson answered after a moment of silence.
Eli stayed quiet expecting him to elaborate. Jayson sighed.
“She wasn’t into me,” Jayson almost whispered.
“Why not?” Eli pressed.
“I don’t know. She just wasn’t, ok?” Jayson sounded upset. “Why do you want to know?”
“She’s with you. Isn’t she? She’s your girlfriend.” Jayson couldn’t keep the resentment off his voice.
“Did you tell her about me?” Eli asked. He wanted to know what Jayson had told Isabel.
“Did you?” He pressed.
“I guess. I showed her pictures of the building and she really liked it. She wanted to know who built it. Why?”
“I just… What did you tell her about me?”
“Just your name, and that we were friends in college. Why? What’s all this about?”
“I need to know… I… did you tell her I was paralyzed?”
“What? No,” Jayson denied. “It was before… you could still walk back then.”
“Did you tell her about my money?”
“What? Eli! You think she’s with you because of money?”
“Did you tell her?”
“No, of course not,” Jayson shook his head.
“Are you sure? Maybe you were just telling her about your orphan friend from college, maybe it came up, and you just happened to mention it,” Eli made an effort to sound calmed but didn’t really accomplish it.
“No, Eli. Don’t be a jerk.”
“I won’t get mad, I just need to know.”
“She’s not with you because of money,” Jayson stated.
“How do you know?”
“’cause she’s not like that. You’re such a jerk!” Jayson stood up.
“Are you in love with her?” The words came out of Eli’s mouth before he could stop them.
Jayson stood quiet and stared down at Eli for a while.
“Are you?” Eli insisted. He had to look up at him, he had never wished more that he could stand and hold Jayson’s eyes at his own level.
Jayson sighed. “I was… Maybe I still am. But she’s with you now and you’re being an asshole. It figures.”
“I just… I need to understand,” Eli tried to explain.
“Understand what?” Jayson almost shouted. He was visibly angry.
“Why she’s with me. Why would she be with me and not you?” Eli let out. Jayson softened his look at Eli’s words. “I need to know if you told her about the money. ‘cause otherwise it makes no sense.”
“She’s not with you because of the money. I know that much,” Jayson lower his tone and sat back down.
“How can you be sure?”
“Because if she cared about money she would’ve said yes to me. I think I have a lot more than you do. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Maybe she thought you weren’t serious about her, while I… I‘m an easier target,” he said those words with pain, but certain they were true.
Jayson squinted at him. “I didn’t tell her about your money. I’m certain of it. And I made it pretty clear that I was serious about her. Believe me. I… I told her I wanted to marry her.”
Eli widened his eyes at him. “But then… Why didn’t she? It makes no sense.”
“I don’t know why she’s with you. I don’t know why she refused me,” Jayson sighed again and hesitated before continuing. “Honestly, I even thought she might be gay or something.”
“It’s terribly conceded of me. I know. But women don’t refuse me very often. And I tried, really tried with her. For over a year. I used every trick on my book. But she just wasn’t interested.”
“Why would she say no to you and yes to me? It makes no sense,” Eli maintained.
“I don’t know man. I really don’t. But I am sure it’s not because of the money. Don’t be a jerk to her. She’s not like that. She’s not like that at all. Besides, she’s got money of her own.”
“I know she makes good money and she’ll be a CEO once her company’s settles here in Boston. But there’s a difference between that and my money,” he felt Matt’s words bouncing in his ears.
“She won’t just be a CEO, Eli. The owner of her company wants to leave everything to her. Didn’t you know?”
“The company belongs to a Japanese man, Mr. Massada. He’s old and his only son died a while back from cancer. For what I’ve heard, the old man thinks of her as a daughter and wants to leave everything to her. He put it down on his will.”
Isabel had told Eli about Mr. Massada and how they were pretty close. But she had never mentioned that.
“Look, Eli,” Jayson spoke slowly now. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t surprise me to hear her say she was your girlfriend. No offense, but…” Eli knew what he meant and took no offense. He let Jayson know by nodding slightly before Jayson continued. “But whatever her reasons, she likes you. You, Eli. Not me. Don’t insult her like this. She’s not that kind of woman.”
Eli nodded. “I know. I just… I’m sorry.”
He should’ve felt relieved at Jayson words. And yet, somehow, he didn’t. If it was true, if Isabel was expecting a large inheritance, if she had money of her own and wasn’t interested on Eli’s, it still didn’t explain why she was with him. Jayson was handsome, smart, able-bodied. In what world was Eli a better choice than him? He sighed.
Once he was out of there, Eli checked his phone. He had no missing calls from Isabel and no texts. He called Jenna at the office and asked for messages, but she hadn’t called or gone there either. He brought her name up on the screen of his phone, but then decided to go see her instead. He was hoping she’d be home.
Once there, he started to panic. What if Isabel was really in love with him? What if she really didn’t care about his money and he had just blown it big time? He hadn’t even let her have dinner, and he had pretty much dumped her afterwards. He hadn’t answered her calls or even texted her. What if she was angry at him? What if she didn’t forgive him?
Her face once she opened the door confirmed his fear. She looked angry. When she saw him she sighed.
“Hey, Is,” he said merely above a whisper.
In response she got out of the way to let him come inside. Eli pushed his rims towards the living room and then turned around to look at her.
“I…,” he didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry about Saturday,” he apologized. Isabel nodded. Eli took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Jayson,” she apologized as well and then pulled up a chair in front of him and sat down. Eli was grateful. He hated looking up at her.
“Why didn’t you?”
Isabel sighed. “Honestly? Because I didn’t want what happened to happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know I can be intimidating sometimes,” she explained. “And I wanted this.”
Eli gave her a look that implied he didn’t understand.
“I wanted you,” she continued. “I knew you felt insecure about me and I didn’t want to add to it.”
Once again he felt he was an open book before her eyes. Of course it was obvious to her. She was right; most men would feel intimidated by her looks. Eli most of all.
“Well, you’re right. I feel insecure. I just don’t understand why you would prefer me to him,” he admitted.
“Because Eli, you’re so much better than him. Can’t you see that?”
“No, Is. I can’t,” he smiled wryly. “Of course I can’t. I’m…” he looked down at his still legs.
Isabel kneeled down in front of him and placed both hands over his thighs.
“So you can’t walk and he can. Big deal. Most men can walk. But who can create what you create? Who can build what you build? You see the world like no one else. You… I love you Eli. I need you to believe that.”
She stared at him with daunting eyes, her big blue eyes piercing him. Eli looked away. “You could have any man you wanted,” he said still looking at the empty wall.
“I want you. You, Eli,” she said looking for his eyes. “Your deep amber eyes. Your strong arms,” she touched his shoulders and sled her hands down over his biceps. “Your talent, your humble personality, your food, your warmth. You, Eli. I love all of you.”
“No buts,” she interrupted. “So, I’m pretty. You’re handsome too. Very handsome.”
“You’re not just pretty, Isabel. You’re gorgeous. And I’m… a cripple.”
“You’re not a cripple. Don’t say that. You’re completely independent. You’re so strong.”
“I’m not strong,” he interrupted. “I’m really not, Is. I… I hate to admit it but I’m so weak. I hate it. I hate feeling like this, but I’m completely at your mercy. If you told me you don’t love me, if you even made so much as a gesture to make me feel you found me, my body… awkward or… I seriously don’t think I could take it. I… I don’t want to put that on you. I hate being so needy. But the fact is I need you, Is. I’m barely holding it together.”
“I need you too.”
“Not like I do,” he countered.
“I do, Eli,” she insisted. “I know you struggle, every day. I know. I can tell. Who can blame you. I know it’s been really hard for you. But you’ll get through it. You won’t always feel like this.”
Eli took a deep breath. He felt like crying and he hated that. He hated it. Isabel put her small hand over his cheek.
“I know it’s hard. I wish I could make it better, and I know I can’t. But it will get better. It’ll get easier,” she insisted.
“I’m not getting any better. This isn’t going away.” He placed his hands over his legs where Isabel’s had just been.
“I know, baby. But you’ll accept it. And in time, you’ll feel ok again.”
“Oh, Is. I don’t know about that. I don’t know if I can do this,” he shook his head.
“You can and you will. People do it every day. And you’re stronger than them. You’re so strong. I promise you,” she held his hands in hers.
“How can you say that? Especially after what I just told you,” he challenged her.
“You are strong. You’re the strongest person I know,” she contradicted him.
“Oh, Is,” he closed his eyes feeling the tears come.
“I know everything is harder for you. But you’re doing it, baby. You can do everything. I know there are dozens of things you worry about every day. You need to know I’m not one of them. You don’t need to worry about me. I’m with you. I love you. All of you. And it doesn’t matter to me if you can’t walk. Or if you do things a little differently. I swear to you. Of course you feel this way. You’re doing it all by yourself. But you don’t have to be so tough all the time. Not all the time, not around me.” She threw her arms around him and held him. “You’re not alone, Eli. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere. I promise,” she whispered in his ear.
He returned her embrace and he couldn’t fight it anymore. He let the tears flow and then he couldn’t stop them. Before he could help it he was sobbing like a child.
Isabel held him tighter and after a while he didn’t fight it anymore. He let her hold him as he let out all he had been holding in for the last year and a half, all his pain, all his fears and all his sorrows. He cried it all out into her arms.
“It’s going to be alright. I love you, Eli. I love you, baby,” he heard her whisper into his ear. And he believed her.