Eli’s family really is like a Benneton ad. The colors of a rainbow further expressed in Drew’s dark brown and the caramel colors of his and Nancy’s kids. Eli said his mother turned sixty-six on last Thursday, but she certainly is an exotically gorgeous sexagenarian with thick curly black hair shot through with silver. Her dark brown eyes shine. She’s got good bone structure, as they say, and somehow her maturity lines and wrinkles look good on her. She’s so regal in appearance that I almost wonder if Henry, Eli’s dad, stole her away from a desert palace, but then Eli says they met in Paris. How romantic.
Henry is tall and still pretty dashing despite the thickening around his middle and the loosening below his chin. He reminds me of Morgan Freeman minus most of the moles, and like the actor, Henry also sports a short afro that is quite white. He has a wise expression and a warm, winning smile. No wonder Nadia broke all the rules and married him. The fact that he looks a little silly in his World’s Greatest Grandad barbeque apron and matching floppy chef’s hat just makes me like him more. It’s allegedly his favorite outfit; and the way Nancy’s boys stick so close to him I can see why. He is the greatest in their eyes and that’s all that matters.
The boys’ little sister, Zoie, on the other hand, seems to prefer at the moment her Uncle Eli’s lap. I can’t say as I blame her. Nancy and Drew also don’t seem to mind that all of their children are otherwise occupied, as the two of them are obviously delighted with each other. Pretty Nancy, wearing a form-fitting summer-knit black dress looks like someone glued a basketball to her midsection, which Drew is constantly either rubbing or patting. As soon as number four arrives, it looks to me like they’ll be getting right to work on number five.
It makes sense that Eli’s parents bought such a big house. Sitting with them in the large family room that connects to the restaurant-size kitchen, watching Henry, with Asil and Hank underfoot, prepping the salmon, chicken, and lamb for the grill, it’s clear to me that the space is all about family and friends, and home. The walls of the family room display an Abbot museum, celebrating births, weddings, graduations, travels, and accomplishments. As I surreptitiously check-out the photographs I don’t see Eli in a wheelchair, leaving me to wonder if that’s on purpose and hoping not. Eli’s very photogenic, then and now. In fact, he’s looking absolutely adorable with little Zoie using him for her comfy space while she plays mommie to her dolly.
Eventually all of us wind up in the kitchen, gathered around the large island and at the kitchen table. White wine, orange juice, and apple juice are poured into various sippy-cups and goblets. Eli, his dad, and Drew are drinking bottled beer. Once the lamb joins the chicken on the grill, Nadia and Nancy decide it’s time for the men to take the children outside, so we women can finish preparing the side dishes. I’m flattered to be included in the we women, but I have a feeling I’m due for a little grilling myself. When I shoot a slightly worried glance in Eli’s direction, he just winks at me, and, wearing that splendid smile of his, simply leaves me to my fate.
But it goes really well, mainly because Eli has given his family quite the backstory on me, and seems no one’s ever had a better publicist. Of course selling candidates is his profession. And I guess that’s me: candidate. His mother and sister even know that I sing in my church’s choir, a detail I was sure that Eli had ignored since he’s not the churchy type at all.
“I think that’s lovely,” says Nancy about my being in the choir.
“I’m kinda surprised Eli mentioned it,” I say, feeling a bit unworthy of the virtuous implications.
“Oh he loves your voice,” Nancy replies. “Says it’s mellifluous,” she adds with a flourish of the big serving spoon she’s using to stir the herb seasonings into the green beans. “It is, but leave it to my big brother to wax poetic.”
It could be that Nancy’s making fun of both of us
“C’est romantique,” Nadia says. “Your brother is very smitten.” Then beaming at me she adds, “It would appear that Lorna is smitten too. “Très bien!”
It is très bien, my debut, as Eli calls it, with his family thus far. Nadia’s birthday dinner is very happy. The Abbots are a merrily rambunctious bunch, Eli included. It’s a side of him I don’t often get to see, since he rather prides himself on being all suave and sophisticated. Before tonight he had me pretty much convinced that Eli Abbot doesn’t guffaw, but now that I see that I was wrong, I’m glad. I delight in watching him and his family gleefully talking over each other in English and French, and laughing uproariously at various stories old and new. Some of them are told for my behalf, the ones about Eli especially, but some are clearly told simply because they enjoy the stories themselves. Pretty soon I’m guffawing too. Homespun is right at home.
So much so that when Eli leaves the table with Zoie and her brothers to go read them a bedtime story in the family room, I’m not the least bit distressed.
“Uncle Eli is always a special treat,” Nancy explains.
“And he does all the voices,” adds Drew.
I’m dying to see that but I keep my seat and say, “I bet that’s funny.”
“It is,” Nancy replies chuckling. “You must know by now Eli’s kind of a ham.”
“Stage-presence,” Henry says. “The boy’s always had it.”
“Have you seen him, Lorna,” Nadia asks, “On the television?”
I nod, and then admit to googling Eli and finding the Houston video clip when he was being interviewed about voter turn-out. “He was incredible,” I continue, happy for this opportunity to openly adore Eli among a whole group of people who do too. “He could have had my vote easy-peasy.”
But oddly the table is quiet. Nadia looks down. Henry looks grim. Abruptly Nancy says, “We better get the kids to bed,” and she stands up, tapping Drew on the shoulder. “Come on, honey,” she says. “Help me clear.” Okay. I have said something very wrong I think, watching Nancy and Drew silently collect the dirty dessert plates and forks. “I’m sorry,” I offer to any taker. “I wasn’t really researching him or anything, I just…” my voice trails off because of course I was researching him. Everybody does it. My God—google is a verb.
And everything was going so well too. Nadia finally looks up at me again. Her beautiful eyes have tears in them though they do not fall.
“It is okay, cheri,” she says quietly, and reaches across the table to pat my hand gently. “It’s just that…well…it is the last video we have of Eli before--”
Her voice catches and as she clears her throat, Henry takes up where she left off.
“The next day, the next night actually, is when he was hurt,” he says.
“Oh,” I say not knowing what else to say, and feeling like an unwitting tourist in their family tragedy.
“We don’t discuss it,” Nadia says and Henry shakes his head agreeing with her. “But all of us, we have viewed that video many times. My son was very beautiful.”
“He still is,” I remind her.
She smiles warmly and squeezes my hand, “Yes, he is.”
Suddenly clapping her hands together, Nadia gets up from the table. “Come, cheri,” she says to me, “You will help me and Nancy,” she continues as she begins to stack the remaining dirty plates. “I do not like to leave my daughter in my kitchen alone. She enjoys to rearrange my things, that one. Then I am totally lost.”
But I take the dishes away from her.
“Madame,” I say. “You are the guest of honor. Finish your wine avec votre mari. And the leave the cleaning to us.”
Nadia gives me an approving smile and retakes her seat. Yes, I want to ask them what happened to Eli, but since they don’t discuss it, I’m left with the same assortment of speculations I’ve had since Eli and I met. Tammy didn’t tell me what happened to her right away either. It’s not like people with disabilities, or their families for that matter, owe the rest of us explanations simply because they have to wear the results of their misfortunes for all the world to see. There are things about me that I haven’t told him, things I want to put behind me, or at least not dwell on.
In the kitchen following Nancy’s directions, I assist with putting away the left-over food and loading the dishwasher. And while doing so I also get to sneak a peek at Uncle Eli doing his thing with the children. Zoie, her curly-top head plastered against Eli’s chest, appears to be about gone to dreamland. Hank, who is stretched out on the floor at his uncle’s feet isn’t too far behind. Only Asil seems awake enough to enjoy the show, and Drew perches on the arm of the sofa where he’s sitting for the end of the story.
“Eli said you’re an only child,” Nancy says, catching me in the idle act of watching.
“Oh, uh yeah,” I reply. “Lots of second-cousins though, who are kinda like my nieces and nephews.”
“Same with us,” says Nancy. She takes an empty serving dish from me and places it in the dishwasher. “But Dad worked all over the world so we didn’t really grow up with them. It was mainly just the four of us for a long time.”
“Eli says you’re very close.”
“Yeah,” Nancy says, “We are.” Then looking at me directly, she adds. “But we do make room.”
I smile at her and she smiles back. She has her mother’s smile too, but perhaps more of her father’s complexion.
“Good to know,” I say.
“Just sayin’,” she shrugs.
After story time, Drew picks up Hank, Nadia scoops up Zoie, and Asil takes his mother’s hand and they all head upstairs where the children will be spending the night. Since Henry is still outside looking after his grill, Eli and I at last have a moment alone together. I sit on the end of the sofa and he rolls up close to me.
“Having a good time?” he asks.
“I am,” I answer him, and then with a coy smile, I follow with, “But when do I get a bedtime story?”
I’m pretty sure this violates all the traditional relationship rules between men and women, and undoubtedly it reveals that I don’t want to be slow and steady forever. Eli leans forward to kiss me, but just before our lips touch he answers my question.
“I think we should make it soon,” he says.
My heart skips a beat, choosing instead to redirect its energy to my uniquely womanly parts. Eli leans back in his chair and looks at me. Maybe this evening was some kind of test, and now that it seems I have passed it, we’re cleared for take-off, as in all our clothes.
Of course it’s not going to happen here though, so I get a hold of myself by changing the subject.
“Your family’s lovely,” I say, secretly clinching my vaginal walls together.
“Yeah, they’re pretty terrific,” Eli agrees.
“And this room’s like an Abbot museum," I add looking around.
“Mom’s a little over the top about it,” Eli tells me, rolling back a little and looking around the room as well. “But I think it’s because she comes from a big family, and when she married Dad they sort of cut her off. It’s her way of going big again.”
“I think it’s nice,” I say, because it is.
I hear the low buzz of Eli’s mobile phone. He’s been checking it off and on all evening, and he checks it now. Politicians do work on the weekends. “Sorry, sweetheart,” Eli apologizes. “It’s the office. I really need to take this call.” I nod a good-natured okay, as if it really matters, and Eli leaves the room to take the call in his father’s study. I’m all alone now except for the faces in the “museum” so I take the opportunity to examine them up close.
The family collection also includes an enormous curio cabinet filled with academic and athletic trophies and plaques earned by both Eli and Nancy, apparently from kindergarten to college. I’m not surprised that Eli used to be a jock, Nancy either. And that they would both excel academically is pretty much a no-brainer too. Plenty of over-achieving parents raise even more over-achieving children. My parents did, and I have my own share of awards, although the most “athletic” award I ever won was for a third place finish in a debate competition. I’m not carefully counting but there does seem to be more awards bearing Eli’s name than there are bearing Nancy’s.
“The wife is rather a show-off when it comes to the kids,” Henry says behind me, startling me out of my musing. “I’m afraid she was a bit of Tiger mom before it was fashionable.”
“It turned out well,” I reply smiling at Henry’s reflection in the glass door. “You both must be very proud.”
“We are. So where is that boy of mine?”
Captain America, as Alonso calls him. Super Man should have so many trophies.
“He got a call from the office,” I explain turning to face Henry. “He’s in your study.”
“Politics,” Henry grunts.
“You say that like it’s a dirty word,” I observe.
That particular response is a little surprising coming from a former diplomat.
“But a necessary evil,” I say cheerfully. “I’m sure.”
Henry returns to the kitchen.
“If I make another pot of coffee would you have some?” he asks.
“Sure,” I reply.
But it is getting late and Eli has to take me home. So I’m guessing I won’t be getting a bedtime story tonight. Not with that mountain of stairs in the way. I love my neighborhood but I wish my building had an elevator. Or that I had met Eli when he was winning trophies.
I follow Henry back to the kitchen and take a seat on one of the stools at the island. Henry leans against the counter near the coffeemaker.
“So you’re career civil service too,” Henry says. “Like I was.”
“Yes-sir,” I say. “I’m thinking I’d like to be anyway. I like my work.”
“Eli says you’re passionate about it.”
“Yes-sir,” I reply, hoping that’s a good thing to him.
Nadia has had a career as a professor, but who knows, Henry might still be old school. All that’s actually missing from this particular depiction of Father Knows Best is a pipe and a cardigan sweater. Henry makes me think fondly of my own dad, and I remember that I miss him. I can see these two men getting along.
“Just remember to keep things balanced,” Henry tells me.
And I nod. It is good advice, although ironically his own son is taking a work call on a Saturday evening when he’s supposed to be celebrating his mother’s birthday, and on a date. The aroma of brewing coffee fills the kitchen.
“I try to,” I say, responding to Henry’s counsel. “Mostly I leave work at work.”
“Maybe you can teach Eli to do the same,” Henry says.
“I don’t know,” I laugh a little. “Maybe in the off-season.”
“And when is that?” Henry asks as he pours me a cup of coffee.
“I don’t know that either,” I reply.
“Cream and sugar?”
“Just cream if you have it. Milk’s okay too.”
He sets an open carton of half and half on the counter next to my cup.
“Eli’s always been a workaholic I guess,” Henry says, sipping from his own cup. He takes his coffee black like his son. “Even when his work was school. Maybe it had something to do with us moving around so much. You know, like the military. My kids were always kind of the new kids on the block, so I guess Eli thought he had to prove himself. Some people are just born competitors, I guess. Everything’s a game that they have to win.”
“Like politics,” I say.
“Yeah,” Henry says. “Make sense, doesn’t it?”
Although to some people, international diplomacy is a game too. I’m sipping my coffee and thinking to myself, like father like son.
“When Eli was shot, and it looked like his career was going to be over…”
But I don’t hear the rest of what Henry says. And my cup of coffee is suspended midair between the counter and my lips.
When Eli was shot.
Henry reads my face.
“You didn’t know,” he says.
I shake my head and finally set down my cup.
“Well,” Henry sighs. “That’s what happened,” he continues. “Some low-life skank set him up, for her punk-ass boyfriend to rob. A juvenile--”
“Dad, what are you doing?” I hear Eli ask, and whipping around on the stool I discover he has rejoined us.
And I know that face. I saw it on the plane, when Mr. Baxter tried to make him stand up.
“Just talking with Lorna,” Henry says.
But they don’t discuss it. And here I am, stuck in the middle again.
“It’s late, Lorna,” Eli says in a calm voice that does not match his face or the way his hands grip the rims of his chair. “We better go.”
I don’t want to argue with him, but I do want to say goodnight his mother, and to Nancy and Drew, so I’m slow to come off the stool.
“I said let’s go,” Eli repeats himself.
“Eli,” Henry says. “She should know. Sometimes you have to talk about things, son, even if you don’t want to.”
Eli pivots his chair and heads toward the front door. Fearing that he might actually leave me behind, I jump from the stool and hurry after him. He’s waiting for me, however, at the foyer closet where I quickly get my purse.
“Eli, don’t you want to say goodnight to your mother?” I make an attempt at something akin to peacemaking. “And Nancy and Drew?”
“I don’t appreciate you discussing me with my family, Lorna,” he says throwing open the front door.
As if that was a wrong thing to do. I literally have to run after him but when we get to his car, as usual I wait for him to get in first and stow his chair. It’s safer this way he tells me. And tonight maybe that’s especially true. He’s so angry that he practically flings his disassembled chair into the backseat, and I’m relieved not to be in the way.
“Eli,” I try again once I’m in the car next to him. “I’m sorry. Your father thought I knew. I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm.”
“Goddamnit, Lorna!” he strikes the steering wheel with his clenched fist. “I’m not one of your fuckin’ clients! You want to know something about me, ask me. Me! You understand?”
In the car, with the overhead light gone out, Eli’s hardened face is in shadows, but the rage shows. Why should he be so angry? A bad thing happened to him. He didn’t do anything wrong. I think of his family in the house, wishing they’d come out and persuade him to come back in, and worrying that I will never see them again. Okay—so what have I got to lose I tell myself.
“Alright,” I say to Eli, my voice trembling. “When are you going to make love to me?”