Chapter 8

Angelo’s was a little restaurant situated in a brick building and an adjoining house in what little was left of the residential area between central campus and the medical school. It looked a little funny there; there were several other spots around Ann Arbor like Main Street or State Street, where restaurants and stores were stacked side-by-side. This was a lot more like someone looked at two houses, decided they could get more money running a restaurant than renting to students, and set up shop.

Nabil was waiting for me when I hopped off the campus bus and approached to the restaurant. He was dressed in a button-down and jeans, and his hair was dark and glistening—he probably also had just gotten out of the shower.

I waved, and he waved back.

“I just put in our name,” he said, gesturing to the hostess stand. I’d heard that Angelo’s was popular, but it was absolutely packed for Sunday brunch. Tables of undergraduates hopping out of the dorms for one morning, what looked like probably some visiting parents hanging out with their embarrassed kids, and a handful of tables of couples. We leaned against the front windows of the restaurant while we waited for the waitress to call our table.

“This place smells like a syrup factory,” I said.

Nabil grinned. “Tiny factory. I guess it’s because they have some sort of crazy French toast.”

“Oooh, that sounds kinda good.” Just as I said it, a waitress emerged from the kitchen with a towering stack of the stuff, each piece of bread at least an inch and a half thick, and the whole thing dripping some sort of berry mix.

I pointed. “That. I want that.”

“That is so the beer talking.” He smiled. “Exactly how hungover are you, anyway? Maybe this was a bad morning to come for brunch.”

“No, I’m fine,” I answered, then stopped. How exactly did I explain why I was fine without talking about having been hooked up to a saline drip all night?

“Will forced me to drink a lot of water,” I said. Keep the lie close to the truth.

Nabil rolled his eyes. “Chivalry must be only slightly dead.”

“Only slightly. I think he thinks he’s still supposed to protect me.”

“He sure acts weird about it.” He looked up at the menu board. “But let’s forget about The Asshole. He’s not here.”

Because he didn’t eat, but that was not anything I could talk about. Nabil grabbed two menus and the two of us pored over them. I discovered that the thing I’d seen was homemade French toast with raisin bread, and decided on that.

“Do you want to get started on coffee?” Nabil asked.

I wrinkled my nose. “Believe it or not, I don’t really drink it.” Sure, I’d learned my way around a Starbucks, which was helped by the ability to get a drink that was seven-eighths milk and sugar syrup, but I didn’t own a coffee pot. Something about having no social life tended to be very conducive to appropriate bedtimes, and I’d never had problems getting up or staying awake for school. But this had always baffled my classmates, who tended to drink coffee by the gallon, it seemed.

It seemed Nabil was part of this population. “Are you serious? You got through pre-med and into the medical science program at U of M and never started drinking coffee? Moreover, how are you getting through M-1?”

I shrugged. “I guess I just sleep? I drink a lot of water. That helps.”

“Water and caffeine are not the same substance at all. Or were you not paying attention in orgo?” Another grin. “You are an interesting person, Isabella Swan. But I will have to introduce you to coffee. It’s the beverage of my people.”

Smiling, I said, “It’s the beverage of auto workers in Dearborn?”

He laughed. “My parents aren’t auto workers, but yes, that, too.” He disappeared to the bar and a moment later, returned with a mug of coffee and a sweating glass of ice water.

“For the wimp,” he said, handing it to me.

“Hey, what can I say, I’m just a nonconformist. Maybe it was living in the Pacific Northwest—I rebelled against the green coffee giant from Seattle.”

Nabil laughed as he settled into his seat. “So tell me about that,” he said. “Your dad is in Washington, but you came here from Florida?”

“Oh god,” I answered. “That’s a really long story.” And every boy who has ever heard it has run away screaming.

He shrugged, and gestured toward the waitress, who hadn’t made her way to our table yet. “I think we have time.”

I stared at him across the table. “It’s not really first date material.”

His face broke out into a grin. “So this is a date?”

I felt my cheeks flush red. “I mean—it’s just not…”

The guffaw which followed was bizarrely friendly. “I am teasing you, Isabella Swan. This can just be breakfast with two friends if you want it to be.” He reached across the table and took my hand. “But I think it doesn’t need to be. And you can tell me…whatever you think you want to tell me. Whenever you want.”

And weirdly, I did feel like telling him. Perhaps it was waking up to Carlisle on my couch, or this new location, or the maybe it was just Nabil’s genuine, welcoming smile, but something made it feel perfectly okay to talk about what had happened to me. I took a deep breath, and suddenly, words were spilling out.

“I moved to Washington to help out my mom,” I heard myself say. “She wanted to travel with her boyfriend—he’s my stepdad now—when he had to play baseball. So I moved in with my dad halfway through junior year. And I met a boy, right away. He was…” Perfect. Lovely. Immortal. “…hot. And he really liked me for some reason, and we started dating right away.” I smiled shyly. “I was head over heels for him.”

Nabil rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “That sounds very high school.”

To my surprise, I laughed. “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”

It had been, I realized. Yes, his family were supernatural beings. Yes, there had been James in Phoenix. But in between, the butterflies in my stomach? The dinners at the local diner? The sanguine weekends shopping for books and seeing movies in Port Angeles? The private lunch table? It had been pure high school. A cute boy who loved me, and me, a girl who loved him.

Nabil was still sitting there with his eyebrows raised. “This still sounds like first date material,” he commented.

I nodded. “This is the part where it still is.”

“And there’s a part coming where it’s stops being that.”

I nodded again, and he squeezed my hand.

The waitress came to take our order, and I surreally stopped my story to ask for the raisin French toast. With the local organic blackberry compote? Yes, with the compote, please.

“Anyway, we dated all that spring and summer. He took me to junior prom. And then in the fall, his dad got a new job in LA. And I was heartbroken, for sure, but he just lost it. I said I would visit, but he was positive it would never work. He absolutely shattered, talking about how he’d never be able to live without me.” I heaved a sigh, and then added the words that had become part of the cover story. The explanation for Edward’s mercurial behavior, the way he could be on the top of the world with me one moment, and the next convinced that everything was falling in around us.

“I found out later he had bipolar disorder.”

Another hand squeeze and a sad nod.

“Anyway. I told him it would be okay, and that we would visit. We called each other as often as we could. Sent emails. Texted. And it was six months later, and I was trying to call him to see if I could come down on spring break, and he didn’t pick up his phone. So I called the next day, and the next. And finally someone picked up and it was his mom.”

Just saying the words made my heart jerk. If it had even been possible to call Edward during those six months…if I had been able to hear his voice one last time. Or even Esme’s, as though I really had called her, and she really had been the one to give me the news. I could still feel the impediment of the water in the fountain, the way it dragged against my legs and weighed down my pants. The slowness of my pace, like in a dream, as I screamed Edward’s name into the roar of the crowd. The sun just catching the red in his hair as he was hauled backward into the dark alley. And Alice, tiny but impossibly strong, dragging me in the other direction…

Nabil was staring at me. I knew I didn’t really need to say much more. Edward had been depressed. We’d fought. He said he couldn’t live without me. The pieces were all there, even if they belonged to a made-up puzzle.

“She still says he just forgot his phone that night. But I know they know he didn’t forget it.”

It had been important to me that the story made sense, for who Edward was and who they were, or at least who they pretended to be. Carlisle was an accomplished surgeon, so it couldn’t be pills, those were too easy to survive with a doctor in the house. Wrist-slitting and asphyxiation, same problem. And Edward thought guns were stupid; he hated that Emmett owned them.

But he did love to drive. That was the sole, tiny problem with it—if Edward had been a human, and if such a thing could have ended his life, the primary thing that would have caused him to think twice would have been sacrificing the car…

“He went out on the PCH,” I heard myself say. “That famous curvy road on the coast of California? Straight drops the length of a football field into the ocean. He went driving and at one point that night he just…gunned it and didn’t turn the wheel.”

In my nightmares, I always saw both: the cover story and the real one, meshed together. His Volvo, smashing through the guardrail, careening over the cliff into the ocean below, where the three brothers awaited him in their preternatural stillness, still in their sweeping white robes from the Solimena painting…

There was a long silence. Just the sound of silverware clinking, other conversations happening in the background. Then finally:

“God, you’re right. That is not first date material.”

Nabil was still sitting there, his head cocked slightly to the side, and his hand still in mine. There was a long silence.

“What was his name?” he asked.

“E-” I blurted and caught myself. Edward was the last name Carlisle was using. “Edward Edward” made no sense. I said the first thing that popped into my head.

“Elias,” I blurted. “Eli. His name was Eli.”

“Eli,” Nabil exhaled.

Something shifted when Nabil repeated the name. It was the one part of the lie that I’d never had to re-imagine before. With Enrique, and Derek, and my therapist, and everyone I’d ever had to tell, “Edward” was perfectly okay; they didn’t know anyone else involved, and as far as they knew, all Edward had ever been was a troubled seventeen-year-old boy.

But Edward was real. Edward was the boy whose arms I could still feel around my body if I thought hard enough, whose solid frame still seemed to ghost behind my back when I couldn’t fall asleep. Elias, though…Elias could be someone different. He could be a real human, a boy whose only problems were psychiatric, not supernatural. A boy who truly was only seventeen, and who might have recovered from his mental illness if he hadn’t taken such drastic action. An Elias…he could be normal.

I sat, turning that over in my head, long enough that the silence stretched between us for a few minutes. The server returned with our food, and refilled Nabil’s coffee.

“I don’t know why I told you that,” I said finally. “I don’t usually talk about it.”

“I don’t know why, either,” Nabil answered quietly, “but I’m glad that you did.” He squeezed my hand. “I’m very sorry he did that to you.”

I frowned. “He didn’t do it to me.”

Nabil shook his head. “He didn’t mean to, I know that. But still, he did it. And you have to deal with it, and that’s…not very fair.” He smiled. “And now I understand you a little bit better, Isabella Swan.”

Weirdly, I felt a smile creep across my face. It felt…good. Good to let someone know, even the fake story, with a fake name. Good to tell someone in my new world what had happened in my old world. Good to make a connection, and maybe a real new friend?

My French toast smelled amazing, and so I cut into it with my fork and was on my second bite—it was amazing; they hadn’t been kidding—before I realized that we’d been silent long enough that I ought to continue the conversation.

“Djoohafseeks?” I attempted to blurt.

Nabil grinned. “I’m sorry, did you want to say that without food in your mouth?”

I could feel my cheeks warm, but somehow, I managed to chew, swallow, and give him a withering look all within ten seconds.

“I’ve told you my deepest darkest. What’s yours?”

His eyebrows shot up. “Well, I don’t have any girlfriends who’ve driven themselves off cliffs.” I must have winced, because he immediately added, “Sorry. Probably too gauche to joke about that right now.” He looked down at his food. “I guess I don’t have anything that secretive?”

“Did you say your parents were divorced, too?”

“Oh, that. Yes.” He put his hand in his chin and gazed across the table at me. “A long time ago. What about yours?”

“Same. When I was a baby. My mom’s remarried. My stepdad plays baseball.”

“Seriously? In like, the majors?”

“The minors. He keeps hoping he’ll get called up but he’s almost fifty, so…” I shrugged. “It’s probably time for him to go become a banker or something boring like that.”

“Hah.” Nabil grinned. “My mom actually is a banker.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. She was working as a teller at a Chase Bank during the recession and then they got totally bought out by JP Morgan. And she was just on the verge of a promotion, and JP Morgan wanted to get into Sharia banking and…” Nabil shrugged. “Suddenly Mom became a big shot consultant. It’s actually been kinda cool.”

I frowned. “What’s Sharia banking?”

“You’ve heard of Sharia law?”

“Well yes, but…” Wasn’t that the law that said that women had to wear burkas and stuff like that?

Nabil seemed to sense exactly what I was thinking, or else he was used to dealing with people being kind of clueless, because he went on. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You’ve probably been told it’s the thing that creates scary Muslim terrorists.” He grinned. “Small town girl. I’ll forgive you.” He took a bite of his omelet and looked pensively up to the ceiling.

“How to explain this easily…so Sharia law is like, the religious laws of Islam. Kind of like…have you ever met a Jewish person who keeps Kosher?”

My face grew red. Truth was, I didn’t. The schools I had gone to were really not diverse—in Arizona, of course, there were lots of Latino kids, and some Navajo kids, and in Florida we had lots of Cuban kids, but not a lot of Jewish people.

“I…grew up in Phoenix,” I stammered by way of explanation.

Nabil laughed. “Okay. Fine. But like, you understand that like, different religions have whole ideas of like, how you should live, and stuff? Not just about when you’re supposed to worship?”

I nodded.

“So Sharia law says all sorts of things about how people are supposed to live. It has all the stuff about women that you’ve probably heard about on the news.”

I was sure my face got even redder.

“But it also says that banks, like, can’t charge interest. That’s not part of our religion.”

“They can’t charge interest? Like on a loan?”

“Honestly, that used to be part of Christianity, too. That’s like, basically the entire plot of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is able to lend to people because he’s a Jewish dude but the Christians aren’t supposed to be lending money.”

“Huh.” I remembered that part of the play, but no one had ever put it in quite those terms.

“So there’s this whole complicated stuff that has to be set up in order to make bank products compliant with Sharia law. Banks have to provide services to you instead of just charging you interest, and they can’t speculate in stuff, like the things that made the recession happen. And anything they invest in has to be ethical and also match Islam. So like, no investing in a pork farm or in Budweiser.”

Charlie and Renee had seemingly forever been railing about money and banks and how much things cost. They had taught me to be careful with money, which was why I still stuck almost exclusively to my debit card. They didn’t like banks.

“That actually sounds…kind of nice.”

Nabil grinned. “I hear that actually.”

I felt my cheeks warm up again. “I don’t mean it’s…I mean…”

He laughed again. “It’s okay, Bella. I get it. Fox News is not doing us any favors in the vein of helping people understand that Islam is a religion of benevolence. But it is. Just like the other ones.” He reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Besides, I don’t practice to the extent I’m sure my mother wishes I did. I certainly drink, as you know, and”—he gestured to his omelet—“I have a soft spot for bacon.”

I laughed. “Bacon is hard to resist.”

“Right? I don’t know why God would make pigs so tasty if we aren’t supposed to eat them!”

And suddenly, we were both laughing.

We managed not to talk about school for the remainder of brunch, which was a feat, since that was the main topic of conversation for most times I hung out with other M-1s. Instead, I peppered him with questions about growing up in Michigan, and what it was like to live so close to campus—Dearborn, I discovered, was only about a forty-minute drive away. There was another campus of the university there that was more like a community college. Dearborn was where Henry Ford had lived, and Nabil promised that when the weather was nicer, he’d take me to the reconstruction of Henry Ford’s hometown.

In return, he asked me all sorts of questions about Florida, and being the stepdaughter of a baseball player, and exactly how likely was Charlie to show up in Ann Arbor with a shotgun if we went out again?

Moderately likely, I told him, and we both laughed.

The check came too soon, and, true to his word, Nabil insisted that he pay.

“Look,” he said, when I protested, “I am one hundred percent for women’s equality. And we are both broke med students, so hell yes to taking turns. You treat me next time. And that way, there will be a next time.”

A next time.

“Yeah,” I heard myself say. “Next time.”

Nabil grinned. When the server came back with his credit card, he signed, and then he walked me to my car. I leaned against my door.

“This was fun,” he said.

“It really was. Thank you for talking me into it.”

“I didn’t really have to twist your arm, exactly.” He grinned. “Thanks.”

“What’re you thanking me for? You asked me to come.”

“And you did. So thanks.” He stuck his tongue out at me and opened my door. “You’re studying the rest of today?”

“Yeah, probably, you?”

“Undoubtedly. Want to see if we can get a group together at Taub later? I’ll send a group text.”

“That sounds nice.” I’d done a few group study dates at the library; it always helped with motivation.

He grinned. “Is it too soon to kiss you, Isabella Swan?”

To kiss me? The words got caught in my throat as I tried to form a coherent response. Nabil only laughed.

“Obviously, it is,” he said gently. “That’s okay. Next time.” He leaned in and kissed my cheek. “See you later, Bella.”

Semi-stunned, I hopped into my driver’s seat and buckled my seatbelt. “Bye, Nabil.”

He waved as I pulled out of the lot, my cheek still tingling.

~||x||~

“So. Nabil?”

I looked up from the brand-new immunology textbook open before me on the table. Kelsey sat across from me at the library table, and we were both ostensibly reading chapter one in preparation for the first class of our new module on Wednesday. Unbeknownst to me, she had been staring at me for what seemed likely to have been several minutes.

“Nabil.”

“You understand I’m going to need more details than that.”

I shrugged, looking down at the text. “We had brunch.”

“You had brunch.”

“We had brunch, yes.”

Kelsey tapped my textbook, making me look up again. “You had brunch and you are grinning about it, Bella Swan!”

Was I? I paused. If I thought hard enough about it, I could still feel the tickle of his lips against my cheek. God. I hadn’t felt that in years.

Since Edward.

“Are you going out again? Did he kiss you? And how in the hell are you dating Nabil instead of Will?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, we are going out again. Yes, on the cheek. And because I wasn’t interested in Will in high school and I’m not interested in him now.”

Kelsey clucked her tongue. “On the cheek. How chivalrous.”

“It was, actually. He was very sweet. And we already made plans to have dinner at Cottage Inn on Friday.”

An open text message chain had started the afternoon after our date, and now it was rare that we went more than an hour or so between texts. He texted to ask what I was studying, and I texted to ask if he had gotten out of the rain. I got a running commentary on how boring his section of epidemiology was; I sent him short missives about running low on synthetic serotonin.

“So do you think he’s hot?”

I paused. Nabil was good-looking, certainly. Dark hair, a strong body. I had liked the feel of his stubble against my cheek. But was he gorgeous in the way that Edward was? Absolutely not. And maybe that was a good thing. I didn’t feel plain next to him. I felt like we could talk to each other, and spend time together. I wasn’t comparing myself to him. We were just talking; sending messages back and forth. Sharing a meal. We were equals and that felt refreshingly, gloriously, normal.

“Do I need to?” I asked.

She laughed. “Uh, Bella. I know you said you haven’t dated very many guys, so here is a major tip. It helps if you find the guy attractive.”

I smiled. “He’s attractive! Of course he’s attractive. But I’m not, like…dazzled by him. And I think that’s kinda good.”

Kelsey shook her head in fake dismay. “Do you like him?”

I was still turning the date over and over in my head. I had told him about Edward. The edited version, of course—the one that was safe for shrinks, but still. I had told him about Edward. And he hadn’t run away screaming.

Kelsey’s eyebrows were raised.

“I do like him.”

“Well, that’s good at least.” She shrugged.

“Fine then. That’s what matters. At least for now.”

“For now?”

My study buddy laughed so hard the table shook. “Well, for whatever it’s worth, you should know that Dan got Will’s phone number at the party. They’ve already made plans to watch the baseball playoffs at our place.”

The baseball playoffs? Carlisle was making friends?

I shrugged as obviously as possible. “I’m not Will Edward’s babysitter.”

“No, it’s just—” She rolled her eyes. “I’m just warning you in case you come over with Nabil.”

I frowned. “Why would you need to warn me?”

“Because he is going to be unhappy that you are dating someone else. And he’s Will, so that means he’s going to be a complete asshat about it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Kelsey, trust me. There’s a lot of history there, and Will is not going to be unhappy that I am not dating him.”

“Uh, can we take a moment and recall that fewer than seventy-two hours ago, the hottest guy in first year, and probably in the entire med school, was half-naked on your couch? After taking you home from a party that another guy brought you to? During which party said hottest guy looked like he was about to stab someone every time anyone else so much as talked to you? And despite this obvious interest from Hottest Guy, you are choosing Other Guy?”

“I am choosing Nabil. Yes.”

She laughed. “This is going to be complicated. Mark my words.”

If only she knew how complicated it already was. But I just smiled and said, “We have to get through chapter three. Questions in ten pages?”

She laughed. “Okay. We will pretend to study, then. But Bella—a thing about boys. You seem to have acquired two of them. Just…be aware that that’s usually a problem.”

I laughed, shaking my head. “Duly noted.”

We went on reading.

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§ 2 Responses to Chapter 8"

  • Sally Hopkinson says:

    So good to have you back writing this! Can’t wait to see what might happen the next time Bella sees “Will” if she’s with Nabil.

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