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Half-Finished Starts

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On the first of October, they move out to Long Island.

The home Tony promises her isn’t finished yet. Oh, it’s standing and looks nice from the outside—a two-storey white house with a pointed roof and shutters Tony promises to paint blue in the spring. There are windows and walls and some of the rooms have finished flooring, but it isn’t actually ready. There are no beautiful built-in shelves in the parlour for books and photographs, and no plush rugs to keep their feet warm on chilly autumn mornings. Eilis has never lived in fancy homes—a posh house has never been a priority for her—but she’d be lying if she said the big dreams Tony had for them hadn’t gotten her hopes up. When Tony and Eilis move in, the house is far from the beautiful haven she was promised.

But moving in now makes sense, they decide together. Tony was working long hours on their house; he left the apartment where she lived with his family early each morning, and returned long after sundown each night. He fell into bed next to her when she was dozing and waiting for him, barely able to do more than mumble a few words and kiss her shoulder before falling into a deep sleep. If they lived in the house now, as it was nearing completion, he could work whenever he wanted. He could get it done so much faster, he promised, and then he could get to work on the other homes for his family with the help of his brothers. Everything would work out easier if they lived on Long Island, in their half-finished house, until it was ready.

Or, at least, that’s what they thought before leaving Brooklyn.

Now, Eilis stands in the doorway of their Long Island house with suitcases in hand, running her eyes over the half-finished state of everything for the first time. Next to her, Tony bites his lip.

“I’m sorry, Eilis,” he says, his voice filled with defeat. “I know it’s not perfect yet. Things take so much longer when you’re doin’ it all yourself. We didn’t know that. But I promise we’re gonna keep workin’ at it and it’ll be beautiful just like I told you.”

The house isn’t much. Eilis can see that. But every brick, every beam, every floorboard was laid by Tony. By her Tony. And all of it was done so that they could be happy here.

She takes his hand and squeezes. “I love it.”

The smile that spreads across Tony’s face makes the whole place feel like home.

***

Of course, the charm wears thin after a few weeks.

At first, it’s actually sort of fun—eating every meal cross-legged on the floor, telling each other stories as the sun goes down and the rooms grow dark. It’s a bit like what Eilis imagines camping to be like, and every day, she gets to be with Tony. What could be bad about that?

But all novelty grows tiring as time passes. Two weeks without heat as the October days turn chillier and frost coats the grass every morning weigh on them both. The electricity only works occasionally, even though Tony promises her that his friend will make it out any day now to sort it all out. Eilis feels selfish little thoughts creep up every day, but she does her best to tamp them back down again before they take root and fester. She knows there are plenty of places she could be instead, but that she wouldn’t belong in any of them the way she belongs here, with him.

Though that doesn’t make every moment easy.

“How long until we’ve got proper heating?” She asks the question one particularly cold autumn evening, when the temperature dips awfully close to freezing and Tony’s struggling to get a fire lit for them. She knows she shouldn’t ask—he’s doing the best he can, and she can see that. But her toes have been cold all day and she’s afraid they’ll both fall ill if this carries on.

“One of my pals is gonna come out over the weekend to take a look,” Tony says. He drops a lit match as the fire gets too close to his fingertips and curses under his breath. “I don’t know gas like he does. Hopefully he’ll help me get it runnin’.”

“All right,” Eilis says. She sits for another moment more, watching Tony burn out another match, and then asks, “But what if he can’t help?”

Tony sighs, shaking his head. “He’ll be able to help.”

“But what if he can’t?” she repeats, knowing full well that she shouldn’t be pressing the issue like this. All it will do is serve to make him feel bad, and she knows he feels bad enough as it is. But the words are out and she can’t take them back, so she tries to justify them. “It’s just that your other friend couldn’t get the electricity fixed when things were cross-wired. And it’s getting so cold…”

“He’ll be able to help,” Tony repeats firmly, glancing up at her. “Get an extra blanket for now.”

Eilis studies him for a long moment, trying to read what’s going on in his head. But eventually she sighs, gets up, and grabs a second blanket for her lap. She brings one for him, too.

“Thanks,” he says, but doesn’t look her in the eye when she hands it to him. And she realizes, as she looks down at him, that he hasn’t smiled her favourite smile in a while.

She spends the rest of the evening sitting on the bare windowsill, looking out across the empty field at the city lights in the distance.

***

“Are you mad at me?”

His voice is soft in the darkness. He’s facing away from her in bed, the quilt pulled up snug against his chin, and if she had been halfway asleep she wouldn’t have heard him. But instead, her heart aches.

She slides close to him, wrapping her arm around his waist and pressing herself up against his back. Her knees tuck up under his own and she rests her forehead against the back of his neck. She slides her hand up to cup his cheek, still not used to the feeling of stubble beneath her fingers. Before living in this half-finished house, Tony always found the time to shave.

“No, Tony,” she says gently. “I’m not angry with you.”

“But it’s worse than I told you. It’s still gonna be a couple months before it’s a perfect little home for us. I wouldn’t blame you for bein’ mad at me.”

“Shh,” Eilis whispers. She kisses his hair. “It may not be fun, but I know you’re working hard. I can’t be angry with you for that.”

“And you’re not gonna go back to Ireland?”

She smiles against his skin. “Now you’re just being ridiculous, Tony Fiorello. I’m your wife. And you’ve promised to take me to see the Dodgers again. How can I go back to Ireland with that sort of promise still on the books?”

Tony sighs slowly. “You’re the greatest girl in the world, Eilis.”

Of all the words Tony says to her, those have always been her favourite.

***

The one relief for Eilis is that she gets to leave every day. And of course she feels guilty for that, feels badly for the sense of freedom she gets each morning as she kisses Tony goodbye and takes the train into Manhattan. But she gets to spend every day buried in the bookkeeping department of Gimbels, lost in her numbers and calculations, and that solitary work helps to prepare her for returning home and dealing with each day’s disasters in home renovation.

As she returns home one mid-November evening to the strong scent of sewage, however, she thinks that none of the quiet and focus at Gimbels could have prepared her for this.

“Tony!” she cries when she finds him in the bathroom, up to his ankles in sewage and dirty water. Eilis gapes at the scene, not taking another step, and can’t help but be silently grateful for the delay in their flooring. Without that little lip at the edge of the door, she would be in just as much of a mess as him.

His head jerks upwards in surprise. “Oh, no, Eilis.” She sees his cheeks flush a deep red. “I thought I’d have it all cleaned up before you got home. You shouldn’t have to see this.”

“What…” She trails off, taking in the full sight before her. The toilet is up off its pipes and sewage is bubbling up out of them, flowing across the floor and causing a terrible stench. She blinks at Tony, who’s attempting valiantly to get the flow under control with a wrench and some sort of wiring. “What happened?”

“Well, the toilet was loose an’ I was worried that it’d crack if I didn’t have it seated right. So I moved it to try an’ make sure I had everything put together properly, and I don’t know what I did but, well…” He offers her a sheepish half-smile. “It all backed up somewhere, I guess.”

“Oh, Tony,” Eilis says softly, shaking her head in dismay. “I thought the plumbing was the one thing in this house that was working right.”

“It’s not all so bad as that!” he insists, bending over the pipe again. “I know how to fix it, it’s just takin’ me longer than I thought.”

“But the whole place… it smells so strong…”

“Good thing we have windows, huh?”

Eilis puts her head in her hands. All those wonderful things he promised her—the cozy home to raise their children, with his family nearby, a whole community at their fingertips—feel as if they’re getting further and further away every day. None of this is anything like she imagined. They jumped in too soon. All of it is too soon.

“Maybe we should have waited until the spring, after all,” she says quietly.

Tony stops working and looks up at her from the pipe he’s wrangling. There’s sewage splashed all up his legs and one smear across his forehead, and if the situation was different, the picture would be enough to make Eilis laugh. But this isn’t one isolated incident, one hilarious anecdote for them to tell when they get back to their warm, safe home. This is their reality. This is her life. And she hates to think it, but she wishes it were different.

“The spring?” Tony repeats. “But we’d have had to stay with my parents this whole time. The apartment was already feelin’ crowded and we only lived there for two months!”

“Is this really any better?” Eilis waves an arm around the disaster that’s intended to be their bathroom.

“Come on, it looks worse than it is,” Tony says. “It’s not pourin’ from our ceiling, y’know? I’ve been knee-deep in sewage before. I know how to fix it, Eilis.”

“This just isn’t what I imagined,” Eilis says, trying to will the tears gathering in her eyes to go back where they came from. “At all.” She wipes furiously at her face, the wetness on her cheeks betraying her. “I’m sorry, Tony, I’m so sorry.”

She turns and hurries away, not wanting him to see her cry more. She hears him calling her name behind her, but she doesn’t stop. She can’t talk about their life with tears in her eyes. She can’t let him see any more of her disappointment.

She wishes she were stronger, for Tony’s sake.

***

A while later, she hears his footsteps approach. She’s in the field outside their house, leaning against a log, the bottom of her dress surely filthy by now. Not that the state of her hem matters anymore. She shivers, wishing she’d thought to grab a sweater before rushing outside.

“Eilis?” he says, his voice tentative. “Can I sit with you? Don’t worry, I got cleaned up first. I smell fine, I think.”

She breathes a little laugh, looking upwards and giving him a sheepish smile. “Of course.”

He slides down next to her. His arm immediately wraps around her shoulders and she leans against him, the familiar pose comforting and warm in exactly the way she needs. He kisses the top of her head and she instructs herself firmly not to cry again.

“Eilis, I’m—”

“Oh, Tony—”

He shakes his head. “You go first.”

Eilis sighs, taking a moment to gather her thoughts. The last thing she wants to do is hurt Tony more than she already suspects she has.

“I lost my mind in there a little,” she says finally. “I’m sorry, Tony. I shouldn’t have. It’s just not what I pictured. I imagined we’d come out here to this wonderful home, the perfect place to have a family and grow old together. Someplace I could have Mum come visit someday. And it’s not that, yet. And it’s taking so long to get it all finished…”

“It’ll be finished by Christmas,” Tony interjects. “I promise.”

Eilis smiles. “I’d like that,” she says. “It’s been hard to deal with. But I never wanted to say anything, because I don’t like making you feel bad about it.”

“You don’t have to pretend everything’s wonderful just for my sake,” Tony says, kissing her forehead. “I know it’s a mess.”

“But I know you’re trying,” Eilis says. “And I don’t want you to think that doesn’t mean the world to me.”

He squeezes her hand. “You mean the world to me. That’s why I get up every day and keep tryin’.”

She smiles up at him. “I know,” she says softly. “It’s just hard.”

“So why don’t you tell me when it gets too hard for you?” Tony says. “You can yell and scream at the walls and the plumbin’ and the floors or whatever you want. Get it all out so that I can yell with you, and we’ll both feel better.”

“Yell?” she says, raising her eyebrows at him. “Me?”

“Yeah!” Tony climbs to his feet, keeping hold of her hand. “C’mon, let’s go try it. Right now.”

He leads Eilis up the field to the back door, nudging her inside. She’s standing in the kitchen, facing the stove that never heats meals all the way through and the sink that clogs and the freezer that can’t quite freeze water into actual ice. Tony bumps her shoulder with his.

“Come on,” he says again. “Yell.”

“At what?” She feels her cheeks warm.

“At anything! Whatever makes you mad in this room. It’s just me here, you don’t have to be embarrassed. Yelling won’t hurt their feelings, don’t worry.”

Eilis laughs. Then she takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders, and yells.

“I hate you, stove!” She glances quickly at Tony. His grin is enough to fuel her. “I hate you, stove! I tried to cook Tony a casserole and you ruined it! You took three hours and it was barely lukewarm in the middle! You make me look like a terrible wife and I hate you!”

Tony laughs, loud and deep. He wraps his arms around her waist and squeezes her tight as he joins in. “I hate you, sink! Plumbin’ is what I do for a living and even you don’t work right! Why you gotta make me look bad in front of my wife, huh?”

Eilis laughs, too. She presses a kiss against his cheek. “You could never look bad in front of me.”

“Damn it, I have the greatest wife.”

And there it is, again—that grin of his. The one Eilis hasn’t seen since they first moved in. The one that, no matter where she is, makes her feel like she’s at home.

“Tony Fiorello, there’s no need to curse when you’re paying me a compliment.” She grins cheekily in return.

“Oh believe me, I could’ve said a lot worse,” Tony says with a wink. “Come on. Let’s go yell at the sitting room. There’s some bookshelves that haven’t been built yet that are pissin’ me off.”

***

Somehow, everything does get finished by Christmas.

Their Christmas isn’t much. A small tree in the corner of the parlour, a couple presents tied with brown string beneath their branches, some hot cider sipped while sitting on the porch, a blanket over their knees as they look out at the snow. But they have bookshelves, and a stove that warms meals properly, and rugs and heating and plumbing that no longer spews sewage into their bathroom. It's become everything Eilis could have asked for.

Tony’s family comes to see the house and Eilis roasts a chicken for them. She boils some potatoes and Tony insists they serve cannelloni as well, even though she thinks it will all be far too heavy. But his parents and his brothers clear their plates and ask for seconds, and their compliments on her cooking make her smile. After their meal, everyone gathers around the table, plans for his parents’ new house laid out before them. They’ve all learned from their mistakes, and Eilis makes his parents promise not to move in until they at least have the heat and plumbing sorted. At the end of the evening, every single Fiorello hugs Eilis warmly before they depart. She can't wait until their house is built and they're living next door.

And then, after everyone is gone and the house lights are low, Eilis and Tony sit out on the porch with a blanket once more. He tucks her under his arm and she leans against his shoulder, his stubble long gone, no longer prickling her forehead when she leans up against him.

“You were amazing tonight, y’know that?” Tony says softly.

She tips her chin up to smile at him. “I certainly try to be.”

He kisses the top of her head, and together, the two of them plan. They plan for spring, when Eilis will plant a garden in front of their house and Tony will lug bricks down the road to the plot of land for his parents’ home. And they plan for summer, when they’ll have to prepare a nursery. Tony says he wants to name their baby Rose, and Eilis cries on his shoulder.

When she dries her eyes and looks up at him, Tony smiles that smile for her again.

And now, more than ever, Eilis feels at home.