Truth be told, my feelings for Eli probably can’t pass a purity test. Some of them, maybe the majority, are just categorically lust. Not that that matters really. Mainly he’s just nice to look at, even in the wheelchair. Maybe even a little bit because of it. It’s kind of sexy the way his shoulders move when he’s rolling himself. I’ve always been a sucker for broad-shouldered men. I’m eager to see Eli’s bare, eager to kiss and caress them. I bet the muscles are huge. His arms are also powerful too no doubt, and I’m yearning to see them undressed. I’m yearning to see him—undressed. I keep imagining my hands running all over that swarthy beige flesh that reminds me of the way I like my coffee, all full of cream. I can’t stop thinking about the possibilities. I try to go on like nothing’s happening, but my belly is full of butterflies, nervous ones that flutter frantically dying to light somewhere—well, on him.
These feelings are not so practical either. I keep wanting to get way ahead of myself. I keep wanting to be in love. Normally I’m a slow bloomer. Even when I like a guy I make him wait. He has to prove himself a little. I usually wear my panties pretty tight, but not this time. I’m dying to seal the deal—whatever deal that is. I tell myself that I’m just being a thoroughly modern woman, that I’m liberated, how this is the new millennium, and my mother’s rules do not, and should not, apply. But again, the truth is, practical or not, pure or not, I just want Eli Abbot, and I feel like if I don’t get to have him, in some form or fashion, it will be the loss of a lifetime.
Alonso returns to our table. It’s Friday night after work, and he and I, along with two other office mates, are out for Happy Hour. The music is loud and so is the conversation around the table. Linda, one of our four, is bitching about some slight or something that Stephanie, our supervisor, has done or said. I’m not really following because one: I like Stephanie, and two: my mind is on tomorrow night with Eli; that’s assuming he makes it back to town and there’s not some work emergency that could determine the fate of the free world. Carla, the other person who makes up our four, but who reports to another supervisor, gives Linda advice on how she should handle the situation. Now that he’s back Alonso just laughs and advises both Linda and Carla that whatever it is they are complaining about is no big deal. I couldn’t agree more, especially since I only agreed to going to Happy Hour because I thought I’d have a chance to talk with Alonso about this thing with Eli. However, in the context of this office foursome I’m not about to do that.
So I’m horrified when Alonso brings up the subject of my new boyfriend, which Eli is not I hastily say.
“Not yet,” Alonso says. “But will be. Third time’s the charm.”
“Oooh, do tell!” Linda says hungrily.
“Yeah,” chimes in Carla. “Is he tall, dark, and handsome?”
“Sí!” says Alonso. “Absolutamente.”
Eli was tall in the video clip I shared with Alonso. He still is really.
“Alright,” says Linda. “Details, girl. ‘Fess-up. We know still waters run deep.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I insist.
“Yeah, but do you want him to be?” Carla asks as Alonso just grins.
Sí! screams my mind, body, and soul as my lips mutter, “He’s really nice.”
My friends hoot like there’s been some kind of score.
“He’s on T.V.,” Alonso announces.
“Really?” says Linda.
And with that Alonso is off and running with all the details of my budding romance. Except for one really big one that he doesn’t know about—the wheelchair. It’s still my secret, and I’m not really sure why, except that maybe it’s not really important, or maybe it is. Right now my friends are celebrating my romantic triumph, enthralled by Alonso’s enthusiastic account; and true confession, it feels good. As if I have any right to be, I’m proud of Eli, and proud of myself too. No matter what happens, he’s the most exciting Mr. Right I’ve ever dated. But I wonder what all of them would think if they knew he doesn’t function like other men. Would the office tortoise, me, be a little less impressive if they knew the hare, Eli, couldn’t walk?
I’m still asking myself the same question the next night, as I turn into the parking garage attached to Eli’s building. The garage attendant, whom Eli has alerted that I would be coming, takes down my license plate number, gives me a pass that I’m supposed to place on my dashboard, and tells me which space in the visitors’ section of the garage is assigned to me. Eli’s building is about what I expected, glass, steel, and granite, a monument to modernity, much like the rest of the new, ever-growing Midtown Atlanta. They do leave a few relics of the past: The Fox Theater, Margaret Mitchell’s House, but really midtown is mostly all about upward mobility, and I do mean upward. It’s no surprise that this would be Eli’s ‘hood, if I dare call it that.
A man seated at the lobby front desk buzzes me into the building. Indeed, I’m reminded of a hotel as I enter the lobby and approach the large desk that’s all polished wood trimmed with brass. Alonso would love it. He loves Buckhead and once he finds the man of his dreams, I’m sure he’ll move to a place like this, where the real estate prices are high and the parking is a premium. I give the man my name and Eli’s name. Then he actually calls Eli on the phone to announce me. I think of Scarlett O’Hara and the little silver trays on which the slave butlers carried calling cards. Times they are a-changing. The desk attendant directs to a bank of elevators across the way from the desk. I thank him and he wishes me a good evening. I hope so, I say in my head.
During the ride up, I check my face one last time using my compact mirror. I’m anxious and it shows in the light sheen on my face, which I quickly but carefully mop away with a light dusting of pressed face powder. Instead of wearing them, I’m carrying my glasses in my purse, a small shoulder-bag this time. I’m not planning on needing to see far away. The elevator reaches Eli’s floor and pings. The doors open and I step out into a quiet corridor of blues, browns, and grays. I stop for a moment and try to absorb the calm tranquility the space suggests. Everything’s going to be fine, I tell myself, and even if it isn’t it won’t be fatal.
I ring Eli’s doorbell and wait, and notice that the peephole is at an impossible position for him. Seconds later he opens the door. My first thought is God, he’s hot. Tonight he’s wearing a red polo shirt with short sleeves that reveal the biceps I always knew were there. The dark hair on his strong arms matches the beard on his face which I have come to adore.
“Hi,” he says pushing back from the door so I can come in. “Welcome.”
“Hi,” I return making my eyes stay on his face although his arms remain available to me through the miracle of peripheral vision.
Do I get to kiss him hello, I ask myself, do I dare? While I’m wondering about it, thank God Eli catches my hand and pulls me down to him. I go merrily, gratefully, and we kiss, lingering long enough to show that we are glad to see each other. Nine days is plenty of time to conjure up the demons of insecurity even if there are a couple of calls and texts in between.
I’m pretty much ready to crawl right into Eli’s lap but I do manage to keep my feet on the floor, despite the appreciative look he gives me going up and down and then back again to my eyes. He likes what I’m wearing, and I’m wearing jeans in spite of Alonso’s advice; jeans and a teal-colored, v-neck blouse because I’ve been told I look good in teal and a v-neck is both slimming and inviting. Following the kiss, Eli wants to know if I had any trouble finding his place, and I say no due to the magical wonders of GPS. Didn’t that come from the space program anyway? Talk about your flying to the moon.
By the time Eli is leading the way from the entry into his living room, my heart is still racing but my senses are normalizing. I’m able to notice the soft music playing for example. It’s something classically jazzy though not sultry, so it creates a neutral mood. Thank goodness.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Eli asks.
“Yes,” I say. “What do you have?”
“Wine, water, sparkling and plain,” he runs down a list, “Beer, vodka, scotch.”
“Wow. You’re like a bar or something.”
He turns his chair and heads to the kitchen. I follow him.
“You never know what you’re gonna have a taste for,” he says.
“Right,” I reply.
His kitchen is an open space and continues the neutral color pattern from the living room. He can roll his wheelchair under the sink and I’m pretty sure the dark granite counters are lower than usual. Tammy could stand at her sink, at her counters too. I suppose that’s not an option for Eli.
“I’ll take some wine,” I say seeing the open bottle of merlot sitting on the counter and two waiting goblets.
It’ll take the edge off I think. He pours the wine. I come to the counter and take my glass.
“Cheers,” Eli says raising his.
“To your lovely home,” I say gently connecting my glass to his glass.
We both take a drink.
“Thanks,” Eli says, and then smiles at me in that special way he has, the victor’s grin I call it, and I vibrate like a silenced smartphone receiving a text. God—I hope I’m reading it right.
“I hope you like spinach lasagna,” he says. “It’s what’s for dinner.”
“I do,” I say just happy to have something else to focus on. “Did you make it?”
“I made the order anyway,” he smiles crookedly. “And I can vouch for the restaurant.”
“Do you know that owner too?”
“No, just the head chef.”
“Of course,” I laugh.
I’d bet dollars to donuts that Eli Abbot was one of those popular kids in school. Aside from his good looks, he’s got that personality that radiates confidence and draws everybody to him. A part of me still can’t believe he’s not married. And if nothing else, there has to at least be a wanna-be-significant-other somewhere. Maybe he’s in one of those commuter relationships, where she lives in one city and he lives in another, which by definition kind of makes me a jump-off, and I don’t even seem to mind it. He’s just that magnetic. I can do this—be just a friend with benefits.
While the lasagna warms, we return to the living room to drink our wine and talk for a while. I sit on the sofa. He stays in his chair. I’m already wishing he’d sit beside me, already wishing we were making out. Of course maybe that’s the wine talking. Dinner first, I tell myself. The night is young. Be patient. Things are going well. I’m glad I didn’t follow Alonso’s advice tonight about skirts. Eli and I match. His jeans are the same color as the ones he wore in the airport. Maybe they are even the same ones. I never imagined that just days later I’d be sitting on his leather sofa drinking his wine. It’s like I had to wake-up to have this dream. Okay—now I know it’s the wine talking.
Sitting across from me like this, Eli is pretty much on full display, the good and I guess what some would say the bad, meaning his disability. I’m careful to mostly keep my eyes above his waist. It’s not dark in his living room and right now there’s no table to cover him, or a seat back like on the plane. Tammy used to say that that was the worst part of it—people staring. She had learned to ignore it she said, but there were times when it bothered her. Maybe it bothers Eli too sometimes. In any case, I try not to stare but I do have to look at him. I want to look at him.
He’s wearing Oxfords again, and I wonder if he does that to make sure his shoes stay on his feet. Tammy used to complain about that, about her shoes coming off, and she usually wore shoes she could lace-up or strap-on. Maybe Eli does the same. I catch myself looking at his legs which for now are very still. The left one sort of leans into the right one creating an angle; but otherwise they look relatively normal. Like he could stand up and walk into the kitchen. But he can’t. I know he can’t. And it okay with me that he has to place his wine glass between his legs to push himself in his chair. When I think of him naked I’m imagining his legs too, his feet, and his penis whether it functions or not.
Eventually while Eli is putting supper on the table, I have the chance to examine his living room more closely. I made the obligatory offer to help him, as any good guest would do, but he declined, as any good host would do. He has a nice view of the city but I can’t really appreciate it with my glasses stored in my purse, so I focus on the interior. Being someone whose walls are replete with art work and photographs of friends and family, I decide his walls are pretty barren, almost austere. There’s the one enormous abstract painting hanging over the leather sofa, and another picture which I’m guessing to be of him and his family.
“Is this you with your folks?” I ask about the picture.
“Yeah,” he answers from the kitchen. “My parents and my sister.”
It’s bigger than the usual 8X10, and that gives me a warm fuzzy. Eli is proud of his family and is not embarrassed to show it, at least that’s what I get from the big picture. The portrait is professionally done in black and white, and by a photographer with some artistic skill. Mississippi and Morocco all blended together, with a family dog, a golden retriever, I think. Eli is younger. There’s no beard, and he’s kind of skinny, although you can tell he was going to be a bigger man someday judging by his father, who is tall and broad, like maybe he played football or something. Eli’s mother is very pretty. She appears to be shorter, and softer in the picture, and clearly Eli has her dark intense eyes. His sister is also pretty and seems to have taken some height from their father. Their faces seem to glow even in black and white. They seem happy, natural, easy together, not like the still-life portrait that is my family picture.
“It’s a beautiful picture,” I say to Eli. “How old were you when it was taken?”
I walk over to the dinner table and set down my wine glass. The lasagna serves as a centerpiece, with a salad on one side and toasted garlic bread on the other. The plain white porcelain plates glow under the hanging pendant lamp. Eli sets a nice table. I’m impressed.
“Eighteen,” he tells me. “We took it the summer before I left for college.”
“You were very handsome,” I say.
“Were?” he teases me.
“Yes,” I smile. “You are now too, of course.”
“Am I, Lorna?”
I’m taken aback by the sudden seriousness of his tone, and his gaze is penetrating. My smile fades. But yes, he has his mother’s eyes. Surely he knows that he’s still beautiful. I mean, he’s friggin’ irresistible. Damp panties don’t lie.