"Hey, where have you been?” Eli heard Matt say as he wheeled into the living room. Matt was his best friend. He had a key to his apartment, which he used quite often to check on him. He had actually been more than a little reluctant to let Eli live alone after his injury; but he had been forced to agree to it, mostly by his wife, who probably didn’t want him around as a third wheel all the time. Still, Matt checked on Eli every day, either over the phone or by coming to see him, especially on weekends.
“Hi,” Eli greeted him. “I went to the Public Garden”.
“I called you like a thousand times,” said Matt.
“Really?” Eli took his phone out and saw 7 missed calls from Matt. “Sorry, I didn’t hear it. But seriously Matt, 7 calls? What are you a jealous girlfriend?” Eli jocked.
“You’re in a good mood,” said Matt suspicious.
“Why did you go to the garden?” asked Matt acting like a detective.
“To draw,” replied Eli.
“Where’s your notebook?” Matt got up from the couch and walked towards Eli to examine him up close.
“Why are you lying to me?” Matt accused him.
“What?” asked Eli feeling Matt was acting crazy.
“You’re lying to me, and you’re not any good at it. You don’t have so much as a pencil on you,” Matt rammed at him.
“You do realize you sound like a bitter old wife, don’t you?” said Eli attempting to get off the subject. “How’s Sarah?”
“I wanna know where you were,” said Matt ignoring his comment.
“I told you. I was at the Public Garden,” Eli repeated running out of patience. Matt was the closest thing Eli had to a family but he had a bad habit of overstepping in his life.
“Stop lying. Come on, if you were at the garden then show me a drawing,” Matt dared him.
“Seriously?” asked Eli upset. This was too much. “What the hell is the matter with you?”
“Were you at the doctor?” asked Matt.
“Is something wrong? I know you don’t like to talk about this stuff but if you are not feeling well you have to tell me,” Matt urged him.
“I wasn’t at the doctor,” Eli denied, dropping his guard now that he realized what Matt was thinking. “I was at the garden. I just didn’t go there to draw this time.”
“Then why did you go?” asked his friend still skeptic.
“I was there with someone.”
“Isabel Auburn,” hissed Eli.
“The woman from MS Corporation?” Matt was Eli’s lawyer, so he was aware that his newest project was a building for a security company that was opening a branch in Boston. Isabel Auburn was here to oversee the construction and she had power of attorney, so Matt had talked to her over the phone to discuss Eli’s contract.
Eli nodded. “She’s new in town, so I was showing her the city.”
“Really?” said Matt suddenly changing his tone and relaxing his expression. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“Because I wanted to avoid the interrogation,” confessed Eli.
“Oh…, so you like her,” Matt taunted him. “What’s she like?”
“So, are you seeing her again?”
“It wasn’t a date,” Eli clarified.
“Regardless. Maybe if you spend time with her… I’m sure if she got to know you she’d go on a date with you.”
Eli couldn’t help feeling insulted by his words. “Oh, you’re sure?” He said spiteful.
“Of course,” replied Matt without catching his tone. “Just give it some time and she’ll…”
“She’ll what?” Eli interrupted. “…see past the wheelchair?”
“Why don’t you mind your own business for once and leave me alone,” said Eli rudely and turned around, using his hand to signal Matt towards the door.
“Just leave me alone, Matt.”
“You’ll find someone, you just gotta give it some time,” said Matt looking at him with pity in his eyes, not even slightly angry at Eli’s rudeness.
“Look. I’m kind of tired. Ok? I’m going to bed.”
“Are you ok? Do you need anything?” Matt offered.
“I’m fine,” said Eli fed up with Matt. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said and rolled away towards his bedroom.
They talked over the phone twice during the following week. They started out discussing work but ended speaking about all kinds of things. Eli enjoyed Isabel’s candid tone, as if they had known each other for a lot longer. It seemed strange to him that she treated him so naturally; perhaps it wouldn’t have, back when he could walk; but now, he felt as if there was an invisible wall that kept everyone at arm’s length, even the people closest to him like Matt and Sarah. And yet there seem to be no wall between him and Isabel. Part of him feared it was all in his mind, that he was imagining it; after all he had only just met her. But whenever he heard her voice or read a text from her, his doubts seem to dissipate a little.
Friday morning Eli woke up again before dawn, nervous because he was going to see her that night at the Inauguration. He had offered to pick her up at her apartment, which she had accepted happily. That afternoon, Eli got into his best suit. As he looked at himself in the mirror to fix his tie, he thought not even the most expensive suit could hide his disability. He used his hands to shift his position in his chair, straightening as much as he could, and then he button the jacket over his slightly pronounced belly. He had once been very fit, and even after getting hurt, he hadn’t stopped exercising, but the more time went by the more he had a gut. He hadn’t actually gained weight, quite the opposite, because many days he simply didn’t have an appetite; still, there was a distinctive tummy that he was literally incapable of sucking in. Eli looked down at his immobile legs picturing how they would thin over the years. He had never been particularly worried about his looks, perhaps because had always considered himself good looking; but he couldn’t help but dislike the way his body resembled that of a disabled person more and more. He had to force himself to think about something else, like the fact that he’s building had turned out perfect, to try to get his mood up, because he didn’t want to show up at the party depressed.
At eight o’clock, he parked in front of Isabel’s building and texted her to come down. His palms were sweaty again and he thought he felt like a bloody teenager about to pick up his prom date. He took a deep breath trying to steady his heartbeat and managed to calm down a little, but when he saw her walk through the building door, heading towards his car, he suddenly went out of breath. She looked amazing on a shiny dark blue gown, her red hair elegantly up and long earrings that accentuated her long neck. She got in the car and kissed him in the cheek.
“Hi,” she said with that smile he was growing addicted to.
“Hi,” he managed to say back.
“You clean up nice,” she complemented him and he had to swallow hard to be able to reply.
“You look dazzling,” he uttered.
“Thank you,” Isabel grinned.
They arrived at the party and Eli showed her around the building while being interrupted again and again by people complementing him for his design. The owner of the building gave a short speech praising him for his work and talent. Afterwards he was overwhelmed by the amount of people who were actually standing in line to shake his hand and congratulate him. He lost track of Isabel amongst the crowd. When it started to dissipate he looked around for her but was suddenly startled by a familiar voice.
“Hello, Eli,” he heard a female’s voice and he looked up to find a beautiful blond woman.
“Melany,” he said trying to sound normal.
“Congratulations. The building is amazing,” she said smiling as if nothing had ever happened between them.
“Thank you,” he said coldly.
“It’s great that you’re working again. I was worried that you wouldn’t be able to… Anyway, it’s great that you’re doing so well.”
“Yeah, I’m doing great Melany,” he said unable to hide the resentment from his tone.
“It’s good to see you again. We should get together and talk,” she suggested.
“I want to know how you’re doing, and maybe keep you company sometimes. I mean, I feel like I owe you that,” said Melany pushing her blond hair back.
“Owe me what?” asked Eli.
“Well, you were so selfless to let me go and not want to tie me down to you,” she started to explain. Was she for real? As if he had had a choice when she left him while he was still in rehab. He watched her go on incredulous. “You wanted me to be happy and you understood I wouldn’t be if I stayed with you. I wanted you to know that I am happy. I’m engaged.”
“That’s great Melany,” said Eli fighting the urge to turn around and leave.
“But I could still come and see you sometimes so you’re not that lonely,” she offered.
“What?” asked Eli unable to believe her nerve.
“My fiancée doesn’t mind. I’ve talked to him about it and we feel I should visit you sometimes.”
“That’s not necessary,” Eli refused offended.
“I could help you around a little with whatever you need,” she offered. “Matt must have his hands full, but if I came to help around from time to time…”
“I don’t need your help,” said Eli clenching his teeth.
“I don’t mean like with…” Melany hesitated trying to find the right word while she made a strange gesture with her perfectly manicured hand. “I could make sure you have everything you need around the house and maybe supervise a nurse.”
Eli swore he was going to yell at her. He didn’t care if they were in a room full of people. How dare she talk to him like that? He took a deep breath trying to calm down. He should just turn around and leave. Yes, that’s what he should do.
“Oh, there you are darling,” Eli heard Isabel’s voice but before he could turn to look at her, she leaned in and kissed him on the mouth. He felt her wet lips against his and then her tongue slightly inside him before she pulled away. “I was looking all over for you,” she said in a completely casual tone. “Oh, hi! I’m Isabel,” she introduced herself to Melany and held a hand out for her to shake, while placing the other one over Eli’s shoulder.
“Hi…” Melany eyed Isabel clearly astonished.
“I know everyone wants a piece of you tonight, baby, but I need you,” she said looking back at Eli. “Please, you can’t leave me alone to talk to Misses Lawson. You know you always soften her with your charm,” Isabel said in a pleading tone. “You don’t mind, right?” she turned to Melany.
“Oh… We were actually…” Melany started to object but Isabel placed herself behind Eli and put both her hands over his chest.
“I promise to return him afterwards. After all I’ll have him all to myself later tonight,” Isabel smiled and then grabbed Eli’s hand to make him follow her.
It took him a minute to recover from the initial shock, but finally he obliged and rolled behind her until Melany was out of sight.
“I’m sorry,” Isabel apologized once they were far enough. “I know it was none of my business but she was being such a bitch. I couldn’t help myself.”
Eli was trying to figure out what to say to her, still too much in shock to come up with a response, when an older man approached him.
“Congratulations,” said the man and held a hand out for him to shake. “There are some people who want to meet you. You did such an amazing job that I’m afraid anyone who wants to build something in the city is willing to fight over you with claws,” he said.
He was busy the rest of the night talking to business men who wanted to hire him. He looked at Isabel from time to time, but he wasn’t able to talk to her in private again until they left the party.
Once they were inside the car he turned to her, still not being able to decide what he wanted to say. He felt angry, humiliated. Melany saying those things to him was bad enough, the fact that Isabel had heard her was worse, and what she had done was… He didn’t even know how to call it.
“Are you angry at me?” Isabel asked him once he parked outside her building. Eli hadn’t said a word to her the entire way there.
“No,” he lied.
“I’m sorry…” she started to apologize again but he interrupted her.
“It’s late. I should really get going.”
Isabel stared at him for a minute but then she opened the car door. “Ok. Good night then,” she said as a goodbye and got out of the car.
She texted him the next day. “Thank you for taking me to the party. I really appreciate it. Are you busy later?” Eli looked at his phone and tried to come up with a response, but he couldn’t figure out what to say to her. He was too embarrassed to see her so he decided not to answer. He turned off the phone and didn’t turn it back up until Monday morning before going to work. He checked to see if she had texted him again, but she hadn’t.
He didn’t leave his office all day and tried his best to focus on work and not think about the fact that everything in his life sucked. But he kept going back to Isabel’s kiss. He had to admit he had fantasized about kissing her since the day he first met her. More so, he couldn’t deny what her kiss had felt like. He couldn’t believe he had actually gotten to touch her lips. He wished she hadn’t caught him so off guarded, maybe he would’ve been able to respond better. But no, it had meant nothing; she had kissed him out of pity. She had felt so sorry for him that she’d thought she needed to rescue him. And Melany, god, she was unbelievable. Why the hell hadn’t he just told her to shut up? He should’ve yelled at her that she was a cold hearted bitch that couldn’t even wait until he was out of the hospital to dump him. She thought that Matt had to take care of him and that he needed a nurse, why hadn’t he just told her she was wrong. But then again, Melany wasn’t worth him spending a minute thinking about her. He didn’t care what she thought. Isabel had heard though, and he had to admit he cared about what SHE thought. At least it was obvious that Isabel didn’t agree with Melany. She had called her a bitch and stepped in in his defense. Should that count for something? Should he be thankful instead of mad? The look on Melany’s face when she saw Isabel; Eli almost laughed thinking back at the image. Melany was very beautiful but Isabel was like a movie star, and her comments, what she had implied and the way she had caressed his chest. Oh, come on, Eli, be real. That was the closest you’ll ever get to touching that woman, get over it, he scolded himself. It was half past five and he wasn’t getting any work done, so he turned off his computer and was about to leave when the phone rang. He picked up to hear Jenna’s voice.
“Miss Auburn’s here to see you,” she announced. What? He couldn’t come up with an answer fast enough. “I’m sending her in,” said Jenna over the phone and hanged up before he could object.
Seconds later the door opened and Isabel walked in.
“Hi,” she said shyly.
“Hi,” he replied.
“I know you’re angry at me,” she started.
“I’m not angry at you,” he tried to deny. She didn’t let him continue, instead, Isabel turned around and pulled up a chair to face him before sitting down at his level.
“You are,” she confronted him. “I know you are and you have every right to be. It was none of my business. I know I should’ve just walked away, but she pissed me off.”
“I didn’t need you to defend me,” he hissed at her.
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to feel sorry for me,” he said angry.
“I didn’t say I felt sorry for you. I said I’m sorry for meddling.”
“The last thing I want is your pity,” he insisted.
“I don’t pity you. You think I pity you because you can’t walk, but I think you’re a successful, intelligent, really talented and attractive man. She was being a bitch to you and she pissed me off. I should’ve minded my own business though, and just let you tell her she was being a jerk. I took the opportunity away from you and for that I’m sorry. But I didn’t do it out of pity. I would never disrespect you like that,” she explained.
Eli looked at her deep eyes, her words ringing in his ears. Of course she was aware that he couldn’t walk, it wasn’t the sort of thing you could miss, but to hear her speak the words aloud, somehow threw him off. He was under the impression she chose to ignore the fact that he was paralyzed; but she had said it so bluntly, as if it wasn’t a sensitive subject, that he just knew she was being honest. It was true, she didn’t pity him. Actually, she was the first person he’d dealt with since his injury who didn’t treat him like an invalid. More importantly –unlike Matt – she understood that pity was a lack of respect. After a minute of silence he nodded.
“Thank you,” he said.
They stared into each other’s eyes for a while without speaking and then she smiled at him.
“Anyway, I’m sorry you got mad at me, but the look on her face was totally worth it,” she jested.
Eli smiled back at her. “I think she actually dropped her jaw like a cartoon,” he laughed.
They stayed quiet for another moment smiling at each other.
“Would you like to go out for a drink?” Eli asked.
“I could definitely use one,” she accepted. “It’s Monday, though. I don’t think we’re going to find any bars open.”
“Oh, there are bars open on Monday, just not any nice ones,” he joked.
“Maybe you could take me to your place instead and show me your drawings.” She made a face like a little girl begging for candy. “I’m dying to see them.”
“Are you asking to go to my apartment, Miss Auburn?” he taunted her exaggerating a flirty tone. Then he felt himself blushing. Why had he said that? What the hell was wrong with him?
“Mmmh, it sounds kinky, but yeah. Elijah Brown, I want to go to your apartment,” she laughed miming to flirt and Eli felt the air go back into his lungs. “We could buy a bottle on the way,” she added still smiling.
“Actually, I’m ashamed to admit, I have plenty of alcohol in my place.”
“Excellent,” she stood up from the chair and headed for the door.
Had this really just happened? thought Eli on the way to his car. Had she actually asked to go to his apartment? He tried his best not to read anything into it, but her smile was fixated in his mind. The way she leaned forward while talking to him and, of course, her words. Yeah, she had actually used the word attractive to describe him, he hadn’t imagined that. As he transferred into the car he caught himself smiling.
She followed him in her own car. When they arrived at his apartment he invited her to sit in the living room and then parked his chair in front of her.
“So, what would you like to drink?” he asked.
“What are my options?”
“Pretty much anything you want”, he said pointing at a bar at the corner of the living room. She stood up looking surprised. He had a cabinet filled with over twenty bottles of wine, and another one with bottles of whisky, vodka, rum, tequila, she stopped reading the labels. “I’m not an alcoholic or anything, more like a collector,” he tried to justify himself.
“Wow,” she kneeled down to take a better look at the bottles. When she did that, the fabric from her skirt tightened around her hips. “In that case, I’ll have a scotch.”
“Really?” he asked surprised and she nodded grinning.
“Do you take it with…”
“Neat, please,” she interrupted him.
“Really?!” he repeated even more surprised.
“Nothing,” he laughed.
She walked around the room while he poured two glasses of scotch. The place looked like he had actually put some thought into decorating it. Of course he had, he was an architect. He had some paintings hanging over the walls, and a few photographs. Eli watched her as she toured the room, like one would a museum, and she suddenly turned around and caught him staring.
“Sorry,” she apologized as if he had caught her doing something else. He shook his head at her but said nothing. Then he put her glass between his legs and wheeled over there to give it to her, and then turned around for his own.
“Cheers,” she said following him back towards the bar, and they crashed their glasses and drank.
“Oh my god,” she said after taking her sip. “This is…” but instead of finishing the phrase, she took another drink and savored the scotch inside her mouth.
“Wow, it’s older than me”.
“How old are you?” he asked without thinking. “I’m sorry”, he said trying to take it back.
Isabel laughed. “I hope I’m not old enough to be offended by that question. I’m 30. You?”
“Mmm, you’re well preserved for someone that old,” she joked.
“Ha, ha,” replied Eli. “Are you hungry?”
“Kind of. Maybe we could order take out,” she suggested.
Eli shook his head. “I’m cooking for you.”
“Really?” Said Isabel, and for a moment Eli feared she was going to make some comment to imply he couldn’t possibly cook from the chair. “I love a man who can cook,” she said in a flirty tone instead.
Eli rolled to the kitchen and Isabel followed. He had had the place modified so he could reach everything.
“I can’t cook to save my life, so don’t expect me to help,” said Isabel. “But I’d like to watch,” she added putting her hands on one of the counters and pulling herself swiftly to sit over it and then she crossed one leg over the other and dangled them in the sexiest way.
Eli started chopping, mixing and pouring and every time he turned to look at her, he’d find her staring. She was staring at him for the first time, but not the way everybody else stared, but kind of like if she were watching him dance. It didn’t take him too long to finish, and she jumped down from the counter as swiftly as she had gotten up, and helped him carry some dishes to the table. He put others on his lap and wheeled them over there. Then he cracked opened a bottle of wine and poured two glasses before joining her.
“This looks great,” she said.
“Wait until you try it”, he bragged.
She cut a piece of what looked like a fish stake and put it in her mouth and suddenly the smile was gone from her face.
“You don’t like fish?” Eli asked frightened.
“Are you trying to make me fall for you, Eli?” she said. It hadn’t sounded like a joke though, but a serious question and Eli got a fear expression in his face. But then she suddenly went back to smiling and he let out air relieved. “Is this tuna?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Eli nodded nervously taking a bite from his own plate. “Tuna filet. Very different from that canned stuff, right?”
“I swear it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted,” Isabel’s voice sounded like bliss to him.
They toasted again, and Isabel kept complementing him while she gobbled down her pasta and tuna. She lingered with every mouth-fool, savoring it inside her mouth in a way that Eli found incredibly sexy. He ran his hands over his thighs, thinking if he wasn’t paralyzed he would surely have a hard on right now. They stayed on the table long after they had finished eating, talking about different topics. After a while though, she stood up and walked up to him.
“So, how about those drawings now? Or are you making me beg?” she said. If he didn’t know better he would’ve sworn she was flirting.
“This way,” said Eli rolling away from the table and towards his studio.
Once inside it, Isabel looked around like she had before in the living room, examining the room’s setting and the paintings and photographs on the walls. She stopped next to a vinyl record player.
“Wow, can I play something?” she suggested.
“Knock yourself out,” replied Eli pointing towards his record collection; it was quite broad.
Isabel browsed through the records for a while and finally she pulled one out.
“Gotta love a classic, right?” she said holding The Beatles Abbey Road Album.
“Don’t tell me you’re a Beatles fan?”
“Hell yeah! I’m a Beatles fan,” she alleged.
Eli took the vinyl from her and played it on the spinner.
Isabel sang along. Eli thought she looked sweet singing. She knew the lyrics from every song in the album. They listened to it while he showed her his drawings.
“Wow, Eli, you could really have an exhibition, these are amazing,” she complemented him.
“I’m not interested in that. I just like drawing them,” he replied.
She picked up another notebook and opened it. The first page showed a drawing of a wheelchair. Eli almost yanked it from her hands.
“Not that one,” he said and almost immediately realized he was being rude and apologized to her. “I’m sorry, it’s just…”
“It’s ok,” she reassured him and grabbed another one as if nothing had happened.
They chose another record and played it while Isabel sang along again and had another glass of scotch as they talked and laughed. He couldn’t help but feel that she totally overlooked his disability; she treated him as if he were just any normal guy, she would sometimes lean in and touch him in the shoulder or the arm, and Eli felt grateful and yet a little scared about her attitude.
“So, I guess I should get going,” said Isabel and Eli looked at his watch surprised. It was almost 2AM. He hadn’t realized it was so late.
He accompanied her to her car and she kissed him again in the cheek as a goodbye. Eli was really starting to love it when she did that.