Leon came by the restaurant to pick her up. It was September ninth, Elise’s birthday, and he had planned to surprise her tonight with dinner. He waited in the alley out back, since that was where they always met after she got off work. It was raining, a steady, unimposing rain, making the city dazzle with reflective imagery, both in the skyline and also in the puddles. Leon loved this time of year; the brooding, the melancholy way of autumn. It did not surprise him that he had been attracted to Elise, a September baby. He had been on cloud nine for the last few weeks since proposing to her. Nothing could falter his sails, could dampen his mood. Even people at work were noticing his light-headedness. She seemed to do that to him, make him dizzy with excitement.
Leon continued day-dreaming while he was waiting for her in the rain. He caught sight of one puddle in particular that had managed to reflect an interesting view of the alley. It seemed to have trapped a few of the nearby buildings inside its reflective cage and make them dance. Leon was so transfixed by it that he did not hear the door open, or feel it hit him square against his side. He fell into the puddle, attempting to catch himself, but got soaked instead.
“Oh my gosh! Leon!” A shrill voice came from above him.
“Shit,” he said as he assessed the damage to his jeans and blazer.
“I’m so sorry! What were you doing standing in front of the door?!” Elise cried out.
“Waiting for you, goof.” He stood up, brushed as much water off his clothes as possible and sighed a deep, frustrated sigh.
“Oh, God.” Elise was beside herself. She had just come storming through the door, angry and needing some air. A tear slipped from her left eye and she turned away from Leon, walking down the alley toward the street.
“Hey! Wait!” Leon quickly caught up with her, walking backwards so he could face her as she was evading him. “Elise. Please. It’s fine, really. Don’t even worry about it.” She started to cry even more, wiping her face roughly, but not fast enough to staunch the tears that seemed to flow like a fountain. She attempted to cross the street and almost got hit by oncoming traffic, so Leon pulled her back toward the alley and up near a landing, blocking out most of the rainfall. He wiped her cheeks with his thumb, smearing a bit of dirt he hadn’t realized was on them. “What’s wrong? Come on, E. I’m fine, I promise.” She just shook her head and kept walking.
Leon knew that he wouldn’t be able to get her to speak at this point, so he just followed her, trying to keep her from getting run over as she blindly made her way through downtown with no particular trajectory. She walked faster than he ever remembered walking with her before and he struggled to keep up, wondering where she was heading. On State street, she made her way down a flight of stairs to the Red Line El and inserted her transit card into the turnstile. Leon followed.
The train pulled up in all its urban grunge glory, sparking and squeaking and smelling of stale urine. Leon always hated that smell. He hardly ever dared to sit down on the Red line, for fear of the worst. But tonight, he would make an exception, seeing as Elise plopped right down without a second thought. That, and he was still soaked, so he didn’t have much more to lose.
The train lurched as it picked up speed and headed to its next stop. The echo of the squeaking seemed to be particularly bad in this car. Leon look around, and finally spotted the culprit: a window had been left slightly ajar and was letting in all the bouncing sound from inside this ancient tunnel. They must have been going under the river right about that time. Only a few more stops of tunnel and then they would be in the open air of the damp Chicago night.
Elise was still sniffling, wiping her face on her sweater sleeve every thirty seconds or so. Leon hadn’t noticed before, but Elise wasn’t wearing a jacket. She was almost as wet as he was. She didn’t even seem to notice, in her distress. Leon inched closer to her and placed his left hand on his thigh, barely reaching his pinky and ring finger over to her leg. He wanted to see if she would reach for him, or if she was determined to ignore him for the remainder of the evening. She didn’t reach back.
Leon sighed again and decided he would focus his attentions elsewhere, even though his anger was slowly beginning to build. He had made reservations, picked out flowers, had bought her a gift. Best laid plans, he thought to himself. There had to be some reason she was acting this way. Some trauma that happened at work, or a phone call with her mother that had gone wrong. He knew this could not have come out of the blue. But it was beginning to drive him crazy trying to figure it out.
The train finally made its way above ground after Clybourn and was rapidly closing in on the last few stops before Elise’s. Fullerton, Belmont, Addison, more and more stops, and finally, Sheridan. It could not come soon enough at this point. Leon nervously picked at his fingernails, removing some of the grime that had gotten caught when he fell. He looked at Elise. She had finally stopped crying and was staring straight ahead out the window. Leon took her hand in his and would not let go. He squeezed it affectionately, physically telling her that it would be okay. Whatever it was, he was here for her now. She smiled faintly and turned her head slightly to acknowledge him
At Sheridan, they both methodically walked off the train and down the stairs to the street level. Elise didn’t live too far from the stop, but it was a good ten minute walk, nonetheless. Leon let her take the lead, but he walked closely, trying to read her, to feel her out. She was impenetrable sometimes, but tonight was the worst he had ever seen in almost a year of knowing her. He realized that despite his intense love for her, he barely knew her at all sometimes, and it occasionally frightened him—that rush of the unknown.
They turned off Sheridan onto Byron and made their way west to the end of the street. There were quite a few large potholes along the sidewalk and Leon almost fell into one of them, unwittingly. He splashed Elise’s leg trying to dodge it. She stopped mid stride and looked up at him, with a face he could not read. She looked down at the puddle, stepped to the side, and sloshed her foot through the puddle toward him, splashing his whole front. He looked in shock at his damp clothes and then back up to her, but she had already taken off running. He chased after her, almost galloping through the puddles to catch up. He caught her around the waist and lifted her toward a large puddle on the street.
Elise squealed and tried to fight him off, but he was much stronger than her. He set her down, ankle deep in the puddle and splashed as hard as he could, jumping up and down. She was laughing and jumping too, caught up in the ridiculousness of the moment. Here they were, in the pouring rain, splashing around like children. She kicked more water his way and then took off running again. She made it to her landing before he caught up and was fumbling for her keys when he snatched her from behind, spinning her around quickly. He propped her up against the brick of the front porch and kissed her as hard as he could, sliding his hand down the small of her back, feeling through her wet blouse. They were both breathless, completely oblivious to anything but themselves.
She grabbed at his hair, pulled him into her, and continued kissing him and kissing him. It was the most passionate thing she had ever done. His hands were roving, moving swiftly in places where they hadn’t yet explored: desperate, longing. She reached down for his belt, needing to know that he was feeling the same way she was. As soon as her hand brushed his pants, he murmured a deep, almost painful sound and quickly backed away from her, trying to collect himself. She staggered back against the brick behind her, out of breath and trembling.
“Elise, I—” He fumbled for words. He walked back a few more steps and turned out toward the street, thinking. She came up behind him, still wet, still longing—but composed—and hugged him around the waist.
“I’m sorry.” She said, almost choking on her words. Her throat was tight, her emotions were shot, and her heart was heavy. She wasn’t used to feeling so many things, and it terrified her. She knew that Leon would have gone all the way, had she let him. But something stopped him and she didn’t know what. “Is it me?”
“God, no.” He quickly turned around and faced her. “Never.”
“Then—” her lip started to quiver. The emotions from earlier were threatening to take over again. He held her chin with his fingers and gently kissed her, brushed his lips against hers, barely touching. He kissed her eyebrows, her cheeks, her temples. He kissed her neck, her collarbone, her shoulder. She grabbed his hair again, wanting desperately for him to touch her everywhere, but he stopped, once more composed.
“I want you. But not like this, not now.” He said, pain in his eyes. There was a fire behind his pupils that she had never seen before, and she wondered if he saw it in her eyes, too: the longing, the torture.
“I don’t mind.” She whispered, close to his ear.
“But I do.” He sighed, disappointed. “I want to wait for you, because you’re mine to wait for. You consume me, Elise. I want you properly, as my wife, not my mistress.”
“Leon.” She choked, grabbing his neck and burying her head in it. She began to cry, a deep, soulful cry. This was not the same set of tears from before, but a deeply buried set; tears that had a long history of doubt and pain. He could feel it in her shuddering. He held her on the porch for what seemed like days, until she had washed up all her demons.
“You wanna talk about it?” He offered. She quietly shook her head and managed to find her keys to open the front door. They walked through the vestibule and up three flights to her one bedroom flat.
Elise set her keys down by the door and made her way into her room. Leon switched a few lights on and let her settle in. He waited to hear her get undressed and washed up, but after some time of silence, he went in to check on her. She was fast asleep on top of her bed, arm over her eyes and lying on her back. Leon smiled and made his way over to her. He slipped off her shoes, pulled up the blankets to cover her, and kissed her one last time on the lips. She was beautiful in repose. He realized that he had never seen her sleep and with ardent affection, he knew he would look forward to this for the rest of his life.
He stood in the doorway just a bit longer to watch her. She was so much more at peace when she slept. He stared at her mouth, that passion-filled mouth, the mouth that could go for interminable lengths of silence, the mouth that had said that she loved him. What thoughts went on deep inside her? He would probably never know. His battle would be to accept that, even when he wanted to know everything. His fight would be to love her in her moods, her tears, her stillness. It unnerved him, that silence, but he was willing to take a risk on this love, this woman, his future wife.
He shut the front door and walked down the three flights of stairs down to the street. It was still raining. He turned and looked up one last time,“happy birthday, my love.” He blew a kiss toward the top floor window and made the two mile walk home.