The Cottage on Elisabeth Street (16)

 

It was the first Christmas she had been without him in seven years.

Elise sat in the car outside her mother’s house, engine idling, thinking about Leon. She could not stop thinking about him since running into him just a few weeks prior. He seemed so healthy, so vibrant—better than she had ever seen him when they were together—and it tore her heart open even more than she thought she could handle. Bertie had offered to let her daughter come and rest, enjoy the holidays with her, and recuperate before returning back to Chicago after the New Year. Elise had initially refused, having not spent Christmas with her mother in nearly a decade, but eventually knew it was best to get her mind off of things.

Elise swallowed hard, turned the ignition off, and made her way toward the door. The front porch was completely covered in ivy—ancient, dense ivy that had wrapped itself around the pillars and windows of this 1916 bungalow almost half a century ago and had kept growing ever since. Elise used to hate the ivy, and had asked her mother repeatedly why she insisted on keeping it. Bertie’s response was always whimsical, “I can’t cut something that has lived here for longer than we have. It’s as much a part of the house as the shingles on the rooftop.” To which Elise would sigh and haste the day that she could have her own house without ivy ruining the view. She didn’t mind it so much now. It did have a certain charm about it: a rustic, unkempt look that was so like her mother.

The lattice work on the sides of the porch held dormant clematis, covered in a thin layer of powdery snow. There had been a storm the previous day and the whole town was a blanket of white, perfect for Christmas festivities. Elise set her bag down and reached for the door knocker, but her mother had already opened the door. “Come in!” Bertie shouted triumphantly. Elise knew she was going to have her work cut out for her this trip, but she smiled at the enthusiasm nonetheless. Her mother’s energy was always contagious, sporadic, and well received by most—even her taciturn daughter. There was a genuine honesty about Bertie, even in her worst moments, one always felt as if she were trying, despite herself.

Elise hung her coat on the rack just next to the front door and followed Bertie further into the house. It smelled of a strange mix of incense and some sort of epoxy. Elise knew that Bertie had been right in the middle of a piece when she had pulled up, by the smell of it. Low and behold, inside the guest room, the studio lamps were on and a large piece of mosaic tile sat on the table waiting to be completed. Elise popped her head in and checked out the glass tiles spread across the table. They were arranged in a beautiful lake scene, with deep purple and magenta pieces peppering the water and sky, juxtaposed with burnt orange and emerald green representing sun and field. No matter how many places Elise had traveled, Bertie’s mosaics and stained glass pieces were still her favorite. There was something otherworldly about them. They were unconventional and chaotic, yet mesmerizing; truly art. There were pieces of Bertie’s work all across the Midwest in public schools, art galleries, churches, private homes, and even in an underground transit station in Chicago. She was one of the most gifted stained glass artists of her generation and Elise had always been proud of her for it.

The house had always been a mishmash gallery of sorts for Bertie to display: charcoal nudes from her college days, oils of ancient European landscapes, watercolors that Elise had done at summer camps as a child, and various installments that former lovers had left behind. Each told a story, each had a profound spiritual experience for Bertie, whether anyone else connected with them or not. Elise had never understood it, her mother’s obsession with collecting “people” through art. Bertie always said that each person had certain predilections towards mediums of art, that they saw in art what they saw in themselves. As a youth, Elise thought her mother was crazy, but now in her adult years she was beginning to understand a bit more what exactly that meant, because she knew it about herself.

Elise had been drawn to architecture, its own form of art, from an early age. Some of her favorite memories from youth were traveling with Bertie to whatever commission she was undertaking and absorbing herself in the architecture of the space. Most of Bertie’s pieces were installments in wealthy homes or institutions that were very old for American standards of architecture. She remembered one in particular that had piqued her interest as an elementary aged girl.

It was a gorgeous Tudor-Revival style mansion outside of Detroit with built-in bookshelves as tall as the fifteen foot ceilings and a secret door into the library. Elise had been transfixed. The gentleman that owned it was a retired doctor who had a high regard for stained glass and had commissioned many different artists throughout his tenure in that home to transform the giant picture windows into something from a fairy-tale. He had shown Elise the trap door and explained that he had it made especially for his daughter when she was young so she would have a fantastical view of libraries and reading. “By making this place a secret, I encouraged her to find her own answers, to pursue learning, and to enjoy the process,” he had mused to Elise one afternoon. She thought of him fondly, every so often when she was feeling sentimental. Elise’s own bedroom growing up had alcove bookshelves and a reading nook inside a large window that had been her own fairy-tale adventure place.

Through the living room there was a modest sized kitchen and a breakfast alcove that had served as the place where Elise and Bertie had eaten most of their meals together. It was a sunny kitchen, full of color. Bertie had loved collecting trinkets, and the glass cupboards in the kitchen had been the perfect showcase for her oddities. Salt shakers (without the pepper pair), various vintage cooking utensils, hand carved wooden toys, and all sorts of other neglected things had come to find a place in Bertie’s kitchen. Elise had always thought it quaint.

She had loved the kitchen as a child, always preferring to do her homework in the sun-drenched south-facing windows. Even now, she realized with a pang of regret, it was still her favorite place to be. Leon was always bustling in some kitchen space or another. She had memories of him here, making Elise the best Belgian waffles she had ever tasted, or in his first apartment on Wrightwood when he made her a delicious soufflé. They had shared so much of their marriage in the kitchen, and thinking of it made her profoundly sad. The kitchen had seemed sacred to Leon, a place of quiet worship, and he had instilled that treasure into Elise throughout their precious moments of being together. It had been at least two years since she had felt that sensation, though it all seemed to rush back to her standing in this hundred-year-old house.

Bertie noticed that her daughter was lagging in the kitchen and asked, “You okay, Lise?” That jarred Elise out of her dreamland.

“Yeah. I’m fine. I Just—” She stopped, suddenly remembering who she was talking to, which house she was in.

“Why don’t you put your things away, upstairs?” Bertie said, with a small tone of impatience in her voice. She had never liked it when Elise brooded. Elise turned toward a small hallway with a set of narrow stairs going into the attic space atop the house. The maple floors creaked loudly with every step Elise took forward. She got to the lavender colored door with her name and a few flowers painted across the center and pushed it open, slowly. The smell of old wood, almost musty, with the combination of something floral hit Elise’s senses hard. That smell, her smell, home. This had been her sanctuary, her reprieve, both from the outside world and also from her mother and the constant stream of boyfriends that had made their mark on the house over the years.

Elise put her suitcase in the corner by the closet and lay across her double bed with a mighty sigh. She closed her eyes and flashes of memories flooded across her mind. Scenes of her playing with primitive block sets as a small child, painting under her mother’s instruction, reading in the her bay window that looked out over the back garden to the small studio space her mother had made out of an old shed; countless days watching the snow fall, with a candle and a book the only things for company; lying on her floor listening to music with headphones on throughout junior high and high school while Bertie was downstairs making love to the next soon-to-be stranger; making love to her own husband in this very bed after a long and tiring argument. Elise let a lifetime’s worth of moments bombard her in this tiny attic room, her sanctuary, and soon found herself fast asleep from all the emotion that had been pulsating through her.

*—*

Leon woke up in the darkness of his living room. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, but something had jarred him awake. He looked around confused and wiped his face with a swift stroke. He had seen a face, but whose? Then he remembered where he was, who he was, the face that haunted him, and a quick tear slipped down his cheek. Elise. The face he always saw but could no longer hold, no longer comfort. He desperately missed her, but he had held it together for the last few months just fine—that is—until her saw her again just a few weeks ago. His body ached for her; he could smell her, feel her, see her. He stood up and lit a candle, since his light fixtures still weren’t installed, and made his way toward the kitchen.

Leon opened the fridge and gazed for a long time inside, his mind wandering. He spotted what he came for and grabbed it quickly, forcing himself to wake up. Since he had gone to rehab almost a year before, Leon no longer kept anything remotely alcoholic within reach, though sometimes the urge to get lost in a drink was still overwhelming to him. So, he kept drinks that would give him the sensation, without the punishment. His favorite new alternative was a fermented probiotic drink that gave the zesty kick of a beer without any of the side effects of alcohol. It seemed to do the trick. He knew that he really needed to change his mindset about “fixing” himself and not rely on these types of remedies, but for now, this would do.

He went back to his living room and sat on the couch. He pulled out his phone and looked through the contacts. There she was, still as his only emergency contact: “Green Eyes” with a picture of her standing in front of his parents house at “Villa Ekklesia” four years ago on their anniversary. How could he have been so careless? How could he have let her go? He had been a selfish coward and now he was paying dearly for it. God, he missed her. He toyed around with calling her. What time was it? Nine thirty. That was probably too late for a phone call. He didn’t know where she was, who she was with. It was Christmas Eve and she was probably out with people. Or worse, alone with no one. The thought of that sent Leon into more sadness, knowing that he was to blame for her loneliness, or so he thought. He dialed her number.

*—*

The phone buzzed in her coat pocket, waking Elise up from her deep sleep. Her eyes burned a little from the tears that had lodged themselves in her eyes before she fell asleep, so she couldn’t quite read the name on the phone. She answered sleepily, “Hello?” Leon waited, breathing as quietly as he could, waited for her to say something else. “Hello? Who is this?”

“Merry Christmas.” Was all he could bring himself to say, his emotions surging inside him like a volcano about to erupt.

“Leon?” Elise took the phone from her ear and looked at the screen. It was him. “What time is it?” She said, confused.

“It’s late, I shouldn’t have—”

“No. Please. It’s okay.” She interrupted him. Leon’s heart leapt inside him causing him to almost stutter. Elise sat up and looked at the clock on the wall. Ten thirty. It was late. Yet, somehow, she was glad. Her hands were shaking a little and she was having a difficult time not breathing too shallowly. “You alright?” She asked, genuinely.

Leon waited before he responded, rubbing his forehead with his left hand, not sure of what to say. “I’m alright. I just, I called, I–” He couldn’t go on. He stood up and began to pace. “It’s Christmas, you know?”

“Yeah,” She said wearily, “I know.”

“It’s Christmas and I really miss my wife. God. Elise, I miss you. There. I said it.” He sighed and waited for her to hang up, expected it. But she didn’t. She was on the other end trying not to let him hear her sob. She held her hand over her mouth, the tears flowing uncontrollably.  She shuddered, trying to breathe. “Baby?” He asked, gently. She nodded, then realized he couldn’t see her. “I’m sorry. This was all wrong. I shouldn’t have called you.” Leon paced back and forth, almost knocking the candle off the table in his vigor.

“No.” She finally managed to get out. “I’m glad you did.” She let out a long, whimpered sigh, trying to take a single breath, trying to live through this conversation. “I’m really glad.” She wiped her face with anything she could get ahold of, the tears staining. Leon sat back down, knowing that everything would be alright, for now.

“How’s Bertie?” Leon asked, trying to keep things casual, off topic.

“How she always is.” Elise said, somewhat sarcastically, but with an edge of truth.

“I hope you are with her, I mean, I hope you’re with someone. Shit. I’m messing this all up.”

“Leon, it’s okay. You don’t have to try so hard. I’m still me.”

“Maybe that’s the problem.” He said, with regret. “We’re both still us. I wanted so badly for it to be different.”

“I know you did.” Elise said, gravely. “But here we are. Us.”

“Us.” Leon sighed into the phone. “But not us. Not together.” Elise waited for him to go on, waited for the lecture, for the argument to start. She flinched, waiting for whatever hurtful words would come out of his mouth next. After all, they had gotten good at fighting, before she had left. She heard a whimper on the other end of the line that made her heart fall. And then a sniffle, covered by a gruff inhalation. Leon was trying to cover his tears.

“I’m sorry. I am so sorry, Elise.” He let the words out, between deep, sorrowful breaths. She began to cry anew at the sound of his voice in distress. Would it never cease, this pain? They both stayed on the line, crying with each other, trying to reconcile the vast ocean of loneliness that was between them, but struggling with every breath.

“Leon,” She whispered, “I miss you. I feel like a piece of my soul is missing without you.” She heard him sharply inhale as she confessed the words that he had been longing for so long to hear. “But I can’t be with you right now. I just can’t. Please. Give me time. Give me more time.” He knew that she was right. They were both too broken to make it work now. He had known for a long time, deep down, that he had been undeserving of her and had hurt her too much. But still, he had hoped. She needed more time, more space. Something inside of her was still hesitant, still wanting, and he could never give that to her, no matter how much he loved her.

“I love you” was all he could muster himself to say, at this point. “I love you, Elise Burke.” Hearing her full name said by him, so similar to the day he had said it to her for the first time, brought a surge of emotion to her, a flood of memories. She looked down at the screen, at his face on the contact card, and kissed it while tears continued to flow onto her lap.

“Wait for me.” She said and quickly hung up. Leon sat in the dim light of his living room, his ears ringing with those last words. His chest was warm and damp and he realized as he looked down that he had soaked his shirt through with tears, the first he had been able to cry in months. His mouth tasted salty and a bit like tin foil; he had bitten his lip in his fervor. He licked his fingers and singed the candle on the table, staring out into the darkness. It began to snow outside; large white flakes cascaded into the lamplight and onto the street below. Another white Christmas. Leon heard her voice inside his head again. Wait for me. He wiped his face with both hands and got up to get ready for bed, ready for a deep sleep, ready for a new day.

Three hundred miles away, Elise was also in the dark, ready for something different, feeling like there was hope on the horizon. Wait for me. Wait.

 

~*~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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