Slow and steady. Alonso is waiting for me to tell him what that means, and I’m not sure I know, since I’ve been asking myself the same thing for a few weeks now. Alonso and I are out of the office at lunch. We’re having grilled chicken salads. A worrisome piece of spinach leaf or arugula is stuck to the side of one of my molars, and try as I might I can’t discretely remove it with my tongue; much like the same way I can’t seem to unstick the explanation Alonso deserves.
Spring is in full bloom, and I’ve been seeing Eli for a few weeks now; seeing him when I can anyway because he seems to travel all the time. I don’t know how he does it: multiple states, multiple time zones. I almost can’t bear the thought of it, but apparently he thrives on it. I can hear it in his voice on the phone, see it in his face when we’re together, Eli loves his work. And if I’m going to love him then respecting that fact about him is part of the bargain. He makes no apology for it, for his being away so much. I honestly don’t think it even occurs to him. I had him nailed that first day in the airport. He’s definitely TSA Pre-Check status all the way, and how he landed in Coach was definitely a fluke, or as I like to think of it a miracle for my sake.
Because he does make time for me. When he’s in town we get together for dinners mostly, but brunches too sometimes on Sundays, and once we even went to a movie together. I am getting girlfriend treatment. When Eli’s away he calls. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning I find he has sent me a thinking-about-you text in the middle of the night, a sweet reminder that I am on his mind even if I’m not in his bed.
And with his travel schedule being what it is, I wonder when I ever will be. It’s almost like being in high school, when fears about pregnancy and reputations steadfastly kept everything north of the nether regions. I remember my boyfriends complaining about their blue balls and have to wonder if this is some kind of justice being served to me finally, since now I’m the one with the blues.
For the first time in my life I’m even considering a vibrator, but I know that won’t do because it won’t be Eli. It’s not just the physical that I’m craving, it’s what the physical represents. Eli’s keeping one half of himself away from me, hiding it behind fashionable fabrics and manly vanities, when I so desperately want all of him. But he is being somewhat fair about it, I guess. He hasn’t seen my naked bottom half either, sort of. I mean I have followed Alonso’s advice and worn more dresses and skirts, so that frequently only the moist silky fabric of my best panty crotches is all there is between me and Eli’s fingers, yet he will not even slip around their edges to touch the flaming places that literally weep for him. I swear I’m about ready to rip off my clothes myself and make him do something with me. Drug-induced erection, fingers, tongue—Dear Lord—he could use a wooden spoon!—just bring it.
But no. Slow and steady. And our clothes stay on. I have done my homework, reading everything I can about the male anatomy after a spinal cord injury, so I know that Eli is a sexual being, plus I can see that he desires me. And he has admitted to sex since he was hurt, so it’s not like he’s some kind of born-again virgin since his disability. I could understand it better if he were. Maybe it would scare him. But he’s experienced pre- and post- so his reluctance confuses me, and if I am honest about it, it hurts my feelings a little too. How can he really be all in if I’m not in so to speak?
“Are you an item or what?” Alonso asks, and then bites into one of his crunchy breadsticks.
I have been hemming and hawing for a while, supplying Alonso with an assortment of associated details and all the time avoiding the heart of the matter. But okay, maybe it’s time to get to it. And besides, it will be good practice for me for when I have to tell my parents about Eli.
Mother relentlessly probes around for any hint that there might be a suitable son-in-law first, but primarily if there might be a worthy father of her grandchild, anywhere on the horizon of her chronically-single daughter’s life. I may be ignoring my reproductive clock but she isn’t. It’s a good thing the Eaton name isn’t dependent upon me for its future survival. Daddy has three brothers who each have productive and prolific offspring. The Eatons will never die, but I suppose it’s only fair that Mother and Daddy prefer that their particular branch be longer.
Which means they may not be very pleased with Eli’s rising prominence in my life, no pun intended. Paraplegics can father children with the right medical support and assistive devices, but I don’t look forward to that science-class lesson with my parents. That is assuming such a class will ever be needed. Slow and steady can end up taking you to a lot of places, but if at some point it doesn’t get you inside the fly then you definitely won’t be making babies, or much of anything else.
When Mother inevitably inquires, “Are you seeing somebody?” I answer with, “All the time, Mother.” And when she presses, “Somebody special?” I come back with, “All the time.” None of which is a lie even if it is dishonest. But I know I won’t be able to keep her at bay too much longer either.
So, “Yes, Alonso, we’re an item,” I answer my friend, rehearsing my lines.
However, my tentative tone comes out with the words and Alonso picks up on it immediately.
“You don’t sound convinced,” he says. “So what’s up with that?”
“Nothing,” I reply, working a little harder at it. “We’re going out, all right?”
“Never mind the out,” says Alonso. “What’s happening when you stay in?”
Bingo! I think to myself, cringing beneath Alonso’s scrutinizing gaze.
I can imagine Mother doing the same thing, asking the same question. She’s not pretending I’m good girl anymore as I am too old, and she never wants to hear details, as she is too old-fashioned, but she does seek reassurance that I am a natural woman by her definition. And with Mother’s Day looming, I’ll be back in her sights for a long weekend in a couple of months.
“What’s the hold-up?” Alonso asks, sensing my hesitation, and pressing the point.
“Who says there’s a hold-up?” I try to deflect the question.
“Is he seeing someone else too?” Alonso presses on.
I hate the queasy feeling I get in the bottom of my stomach in response to this question. Because maybe. Or worse, because probably. Who knows what Eli is doing when he’s on the road. Perhaps even when he’s in town. I’m not really entitled to feeling jealous. I might be getting girlfriend treatment, and yes, we are an item, but we haven’t made anything exclusive. I could be seeing other people too. However, the funny thing is I have cleared my dance card for a man who sort of really hasn’t asked me to dance, again no pun intended. Although he did say he’s all in. That does mean something, right? When I’m with him, Eli makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world, like I’m Eve to his Adam; and there are no serpents to be found. But maybe that’s just my optimistic naiveté.
“Look, Alonso,” I say more emphatically than I actually feel. “It’s all good between us. Eli’s great. We’re just not rushing things that’s all. It’s kind of nice, you know, getting to really know each other first. He’s kind of refreshing, don’t you think?”
Will this work I wonder. Making Eli out to be some kind of chivalrously celibate Sir Galahad. Why not just tell Alonso the truth, Eli doesn’t trust me with his naked body?
“Does he have something?” Alonso asks next.
Spluttering on the ice tea I just swallowed, I gasp, “What?”
“You can tell me,” Alonso continues matter-of-factly. “I won’t think bad about him. It happens. In the video you sent me, es muy guapo. He’s got this exciting job. Muchas mujeres. Muchos hombres también. I’m not saying that he--”
“Alonso, that is not it,” I firmly put the kibosh to this line of his thinking.
Okay, so now my friend thinks I’m either a hapless side-piece or Eli has some kind of disease. It’s my own fault. I should have already told Alonso about Eli’s disability. If my dreams come true eventually they will meet. At least there’ll be a selfie or something.
“He has a spinal cord injury,” I hear myself finally say.
Alonso’s expression does what I thought it might, going from shock, to pity, then landing on understanding. That’s the hold-up his face says, how the tortoise caught the hare on a two-hour flight to D.C.
“So he can’t,” Alonso says.
Yes, he can, I want to argue, but thus far Eli has denied me the evidence I need to make such a case by keeping to his pace of slow and steady.
“Not like other men,” I say.
“Wow,” Alonso replies. “Es la verdad?”
I nod, “Yes.”
“How did it happen?” Alonso asks. “Car accident?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I haven’t asked him. I figure he’ll tell me when he’s ready to.”
“It’s never come up?”
“Why should it? I’m not sure it makes a difference.”
Alonso shakes his head at that. He thinks it might. Probably Eli will tell me eventually. Slow and steady.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” Alonso asks.
I’m not sure how to answer that question either. I’ve told myself that it’s not important. Then I’ve told myself that Alonso, my parents, friends, they wouldn’t understand. Tammy used to say that people were always feeling sorry for her, and how she hated having to prove herself all the time. “You didn’t do that to me,” she said. “You always just see me.” I always just see Eli too, and I want others to see him the same way. I want him to see himself that way.
“It doesn’t really matter to me, Alonso,” I say. “I mean…I think his body’s beautiful. He’s strong. The way he moves and manages everything. He can’t come to my house because of the stairs, but other than that, it’s really no big deal. He’s amazing.”
“Except in the bedroom,” Alonso says.
“I guess I wouldn’t know about that,” I confess.
Alonso’s eyes widen. It is surprising.
“Nada?” he asks. “Nothing? Nunca?”
Unless I count all the lovely times on that giant chocolate brown leather sofa, and in that fancy black BMW.
“He’s not ready yet,” I say.
Alonso looks thoughtful for a moment, then summing up the situation he says, “So it is a big deal.”
Yes, I suppose it is. I wish it wasn’t, but wishing won’t make it so, or make it go, at least not any faster than slow and steady. I nod my head.
“But you want to be with him...anyway?” asks Alonso. “Considering everything? Todos?”
Absolutely, I think to myself. Any way. I smile a little. No pun intended.
“Yes, I do, Alonso,” I say.
“Lo amas?” he asks. “Do you love him, Lorna?”
“Yes,” I say, exhaling a deep breath that feels like release. “I’m in love with him.”
It feels so good to say it out loud, this possibly most notorious four-letter word in the English language. The company of my best friend is a safe place. I am my plain self again with him. Alonso raises his glass of ice tea. “Then go for it,” he tells me.
I will. Slow and steady of course.
The following Sunday afternoon I’m once again sitting with Eli on his sofa. His arm is draped around my shoulders but he is dozing. He took the red-eye flight from Los Angeles last night, and he’s actually tired enough to show it, but he sent me a text anyway while I was in church inviting me to have lunch with him. I came over and we ordered Chinese delivery: cashew chicken and beef and broccoli, with brown rice and veggie spring rolls. Afterwards we planted ourselves on the sofa to watch T.V. We started out with a news documentary about the Arab Spring, but when Eli fell asleep I changed the channel and am now watching an episode of Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.
As Oprah and her guest sort out life’s greatest mysteries I listen to Eli’s easy breathing next to me, and think the words I’m in love with him over and over again. In sleep his head lolls to the side towards me. He has such a fine face. A lovely blend of French Morocco and the Mississippi Delta. His expression is tranquil now, but then it often is. Yes, like everybody, he does have insecurities. I’m beginning to get that now. But he usually has such a way of not showing it, that he seems like the very definition of poise. Except for that time on the plane, I recall with a small smile. Maybe it was a bad day for him. And maybe I’m glad he got upset, because maybe it was my opening, my window seat, as it were.
I glance over at Eli’s empty wheelchair which he keeps always in reach. He detests being separated from it on flights. “Maybe someday somebody will invent a chair that you can stow in the cabin,” I suggested once. To which Eli replied, “I’d rather they invent a cure.” That would be the best, I think, as I study the way his feet, propped up on the matching leather ottoman, fall away from each other. They don’t look abnormal to me, but Eli won’t remove his shoes when we’re together either. I suppose if he can’t feel his feet it doesn’t matter so much. The ottoman is broad enough for us to share it but he didn’t invite me to do so, therefore my bare feet rest on the cool hardwood floor. Abruptly Eli’s right leg stiffens. The right foot bends towards the ankle, and the heel lifts from the ottoman, Eli, however, remains fast asleep. It’s a completely involuntary movement. I watch his leg until it collapses back on the ottoman, paralyzed again. Alonso’s right, it is a big deal.
I’m being very still, and the T.V. volume is low but nevertheless after a time, Eli awakens suddenly, and seems a little embarrassed for falling asleep on me. Apologizing, he takes his arm from around me, and uses both hands to rub his face. He doesn’t need to apologize. I like that he’s comfortable enough with me to fall asleep. Of course maybe he had no choice. He was full after our meal and exhausted from the flight. Nature just took her course.
“How long was I out?” he asks.
“Not long,” I lie, since I’m well into my second Super Soul Sunday episode. Apparently they’re doing a marathon.
“Guess I’m not very good company today.”
He is however 100 percent human. Good to know.
“I don’t know,” I say, snuggling into him, “I kinda like watching you sleep.”
Eli chuckles wryly and puts his arm back around me, “Really now?” he says. “Hope I didn’t snore.”
“No,” I tell him. “You sleep very peacefully. You don’t even drool.”
“Ha,” he laughs. “Not this time anyway.”
I want to say that the next time I’ll be on the lookout for that, but this would mean I was alluding to a next time when I might be spending the night with him, so I don’t say anything.
We end up talking about how amazing Oprah is, and Eli tells me about the time his parents met her in person, during the time when Oprah was establishing her girls’ academy in South Africa. They were all at some meeting, reception thing. I file that extraordinary factoid away to use when I’m trying to impress Mother with this wonderful man in my life because Mother is easily enchanted by Oprah especially, and famous people in general.
“What other famous people does your family know?” I ask Eli, thinking how this will beef-up my arsenal of Abbot family facts.
“Oh I don’t know,” he replies casually. “My dad was a diplomat. He got around you know, he and my mother both. Since he retired from the government, he’s been doing foundation work. With the Carter Center. Gates. The Clinton Foundation. He just meets people.”
“’He just meets people’” I repeat Eli’s words, teasing him. “I just meet people too, but not those people.”
“You met me,” Eli says in a way that buzzes between my legs.
I look at him. His beautiful eyes are still drowsy but they’re not red. The nap has done him some good.
“Yes, I did,” I say. “My first celebrity.”
“I’m pretty low on the list,” he replies with a quizzical lift to his left brow. “Hope you’re not a social climber.”
“I am,” I say. “And I’m right where I want to be.”
He smiles and then kisses me. My fingers play in the silky softness of his beard. Good family, good-looking, good job. Mother has to approve, Daddy too.
When we pause from kissing, Eli says, “I’d like to at least take you a little higher on the list.”
My mind immediately goes to galas and receptions, and the kind of dresses I haven’t shopped for since my high school prom. But that must be his world, and I do want to be a part of it.
“Okay,” I say. “But I have to warn you, I don’t own anything black-tie appropriate.”
“Don’t men usually wear the ties?” he teases and begins kissing my neck.
“You know what I mean, Eli,” I reply seriously. “I’m Red River Parish plain. I got homespun in my blood. I wouldn’t know what to wear.”
At this he stops kissing me and gently tilts my chin up so that our eyes are meeting.
“You’d be the most beautiful woman in the room whatever you were wearing,” he tells me.
It’s not true but it’s heaven to hear him say it.
“However, for this first debut,” he continues. “Homespun, as you call it, is perfect. We’re doing a family dinner for my mother’s birthday a week from Saturday. At home. Dad’s firing-up the grill. Nancy will order some huge very decadent cake from Alon’s. And one of my nephew’s will inevitably spill something terrible on one of Mom’s good rugs. In other words, your typical Abbot family event. And I’d be honored if you came with me.”
The invitation explodes in rapture inside my mind. He wants me to meet his folks!
“Really?” is all I can muster.
I did not see this coming. How could I with us going so slow and steady? Family introductions usually come much later, after consummations and commitments. Besides, Eli’s often on the road on Saturdays, and well for God sakes, it’s his family. All of them. And me. Me.
Eli withdraws his hand from my face. “Other plans?” he asks coolly.
“Oh my God, Eli, no,” I say, realizing he’s misunderstood my slowness to accept. “I mean yes. Yes, I’d love to come!”