She was still asleep when he woke up. The bleached sun radiated hot and white through the open window, only halfway up the sky. His arms were settled sloppily atop the covers around her sloping shoulders while her head nestled in a pillow that had migrated next to his chest. She was hogging most of the thin white sheet, letting it dangle off her side of the twin bed. Modest even in slumber, she had covered almost every inch of her nude body with his thin cotton blanket.
He eased his arms off of her and sat up to take a closer look. The blanket shifted from her shoulders. Her silky skin was covered in tiny goose-bumps from the cold, cheeks flushed a pretty crimson. Still asleep, her mouth parted lightly as she shivered. Simple. Beautiful.
Five days after they had met, before they had even known each other’s middle names, she had been strangely eager to give into his drunken advances. They had propped a chair up against the door in an effort to prevent drunk party goers from stumbling inside. Therefore when they engaged they were careful and swift, yet equal parts clumsy and nervous.
Then she had driven him home in her car, her left hand limply gripping the steering wheel as they crawled along the bumpy deserted road of early morning small town life. The other hand was holding his while her mouth moved a mile a minute. She was anxious and eccentric. He had laughed at several moments, poking fun at her ridiculous anecdotes, like the “huge ass fight,” really only a disagreement, that she had had with her father about borrowing the car. She wore the cheerful outlook of someone who had never experienced a day of tragedy in her life. Still, he was never bitter, never jealous nor envious. He was merely dazzled to see her explain the world through her eyes.
Now there was a routine to it. She would close whatever book she was pretending to study from, yawn and stretch her legs out, staring at him until finally the hotness of it became unbearable and he had to turn around. She would cock her head then and give him a grin, a small upturning of the lips, always to the right. If they were close enough, as they so often were, she would give his inner thigh a light stroke with her foot and gaze at him with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. And then he was the one tasked with taking that first big step forward. With giving the first kiss.
The number of women that he had slept with fit perfectly on one hand, but among them she was the only one whom he had called girlfriend. He had had a lot of sex, but lying there in bed, he wondered if this was what making love felt like. Surely not, he reasoned, not when one of the only sure things he knew in life was that he could not love her. Still, when their bodies made contact, it awakened an ecstasy in him. Suddenly, he would become starving and greedy for her flesh; he needed to feel every inch of her and be felt the same way. Then he would feel an insurmountable longing to linger while she shied away under the excuse of being found out. Until now, she had never stayed the night. And he had the sudden urge to capture it.
He reached across her to get his phone from the table and took a few photos. They overexposed her; the light from outside drowned out every subtle detail in her profile. He reached over again, this time for her phone. It was, like most other things, better than his: the newest model with a state-of-the-art camera; impeccable resolution and focus. Nonetheless, when he anchored himself up on his elbows and tried once more to take the shot, it did not look right. The camera had autocorrected the light to look less yellow. He played around with the settings, but the picture moved from too yellow to too white, and then to a dark hue. Finally resorting to the flash, he still had no luck at capturing her likeness. Instead she scrunched up her face, squeezed her eyes, and turned her head, then subsequently her body, to the other side. And just like that the moment had passed. The image he had relished so profoundly was now starting to fade from his mind. Slowly, but still much too fast.
Another face invaded his mind then, a face he always tried so hard to keep at bay. One like his own, but more delicate, more weathered.
The same round chocolate eyes and a daintier nose, but the exact same pouty lips. He saw her face flash by with varying expressions: smiling, screaming, crying, and then, finally, without any expression at all. This motionlessness had not been only at the very end; it had always existed, yet slithered up more frequently during the denouement of her life. Now a deceptive memory of her crept up into his head, one that became increasingly vivid and exaggerated with every passing day: bright eyes and the corners of rosy lips turned in an unexpected way.
In his memory the woman with the changing faces was always needing attention, always craving it. Unapologetically interrupting with a voice that was too loud and too emotional, no matter the situation. Jumping into pictures at the last second or trying to one-up someone’s sad or happy story, she went through life in constant competition with those around her. She stole the focus with an outlandish flare that no one else could get away with.
She was always critical, never at fault, and she hurled insults with enough fury to scatter a pack of hyenas. Even so, she could be counted on to come back with that classic teary look on her face, those pouty lips working overtime. And she would never cave first, he remembered. She would stand there until the bitter end, until he or his father or everyone else gave in, crying or relenting or holding out their arms to welcome her back.
When she got her headaches he had to leave. When she yelled that he was the reason her life had ended so prematurely, the reason why she never got to experience things, the reason why she was like this, he had to stand there and take it. He had to tip-toe around her. He had to shut his mouth. Until the day he hadn’t.
“Why does she get to say shit like that all day?” he had asked his father, while she stood by. “And I just have to take it?”
She had cocked her jaw to the side and closed herself off with her arms. She wouldn’t make eye contact. His father on the other hand had silently barrelled down on him, staring with an intensity that he could not decide was apologetic or pleading. He had opened his mouth to yell more words, but a sob had fled his throat, choking them out before they became audible. He inhaled, and the air came into his lungs unevenly, catching on a rawness that made him cough. He inhaled once more, with the same issue. It was not until he saw a quizzical look flash briefly across her face that he realized tears were pouring out his eyes.
“Hey,” his father said, sighing deeply. His father placed a hand on his shoulder. He shook it off. His father tried again. He shook it off again. When neither of them made any further action, he turned around and left for his room.
He cried himself to sleep that night. When he awoke hours later to use the bathroom, he saw her sitting with a glass of water at the kitchen table. She arose and stared at him then, his eyes swollen and red and matching her own.
He shrugged. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice cracking on the last syllable.
“Don’t,” she responded immediately, her voice cold and steady, not matching the sadness in her eyes. Then tightly: “Don’t say that.”
She held open her slender arms in invitation and he obliged. He had to crouch down to reach her, and even then her arms couldn’t touch the tops of his shoulders. “Off to bed,” she said too quickly, pulling apart and placing an arm around his waist. He nodded. She led him back to bed and lay down next to him when he asked her to stay. He rolled over and enclosed her in big hug, a gesture that had made the both of them laugh. He had hugged her until he fell asleep, tighter and tighter because he could feel the enormity of her disappearing even then. Despite his efforts, it had not been enough to hold her together.
The next five weeks had gone by slowly. He was on his best behaviour, while hers had disappeared completely. She spent more and more time shut off in her room or in the rocking chair in the living room, drinking black coffee and refusing meals. He joked and teased and, when all else failed, pleaded, yet to no avail. She would not react. Her eyebrows remained level, her lips tight and downturned. Until the day he came back home early from helping his father with a construction job and she had re-emerged as a pendulum in the living room.
He froze in the doorway, stumbling forward only after a shove from his father. The older man had run to envelop her legs in his strong arms, lifting her as high as his reach could allow. Still barely into the room, his son marvelled at the skilfulness of it all. In her cream nightgown, with her thin, lithe limbs she looked like a dancer. He felt briefly like he was peeking in on something intimate: a fleeting moment between two carefree lovers.
What was that his father asking for? A gauge? His father repeated it louder and louder, until the words began to mean something in his clouded mind. A gage. Gage. His name. It was so strange how that one noun, just a sound really, could be used as a means of identification. He let out a single guffaw before he could even register it, let alone suppress it.
His father was wailing his name and looking back and forth between his son and a chair that was just out of his reach. The young man hesitated. Then he moved to action. The noise of the situation suddenly became apparent and assaulted him at once. Bloodcurdling screams were jumping out of his father’s mouth; his name was becoming shorter, faster and more strangled in the process.
He rushed to prop the chair back up under her limp feet, then stood up and swiftly removed the rope from the ceiling fan. The back of his hand briefly made contact with her warm forehead. He stole a glance at her face.
His father dropped to his knees and began to lightly compress her chest. That won’t help, he almost said, but instead he went to the kitchen to get the phone and call for an ambulance. When he came back, his father was sitting against the wall on the floor, his face in his leathery hands. In those first seventeen years of his life, he had never seen the older man cry before: muttering the same word over and over again in between heavy wheezing sobs like he was broken. It wasn’t until his father held his head up and turned to look at him did he realize that the words were meant for him.
He parted his lips very slowly, and a jagged breath escaped from his throat. He was back in bed with his girlfriend now, but just barely. When he tried to take a deep breath in, it caught in the space between his tonsils and the moist surface at the bottom of his neck. It was not a new sensation, but still unpleasant. A trembling hand was raised to cover his mouth, while he used the other to throw the cover off of his naked body. He had to get out while he could still move. He did not make it very far.
Only able to make it a few paces across the floor, almost close enough to reach the bedroom door, his body froze up and he dropped to his knees. He gulped and wheezed, trying to force air down his constricted lungs, and to make it stay there.
He hated her. He hated how much he hated her. He hated how much he still missed her. How much he still felt like he needed her.
Debilitated, a familiar darkness began to close in. Tightness grew in his throat, which was threatening to release a demon; he clenched his stomach and lurched forward to combat it. He opened his mouth and began to wheeze and convulse.
Focus, he reminded himself. His arms were limply embracing his shoulders, and he tried now to move them down to feel the frosty wooden floor, but they started to twitch instead. The light tremor followed up his neck and down his torso and into his stretching legs: an ice spreading throughout his body.
Focus. He tried to concentrate on the colour white, foe to the darkness that was struggling to consume him. The white sheets, her white dress, the white bumpy ceiling. But the night fought its way through, as it did after every day. The morning would come. It had to. Focus. A dark cloud consumed his vision, blocking out all colour, and then the outline of everything that he knew was true. The only thing left now was her face as he had last seen it. Haunting. Smiling.
He starting bawling then, turning over to his hands and knees. Heavy, loud sobs escaped his mouth; he felt an earthquake in his shoulders after each one. He was exhausted. Humiliated. Yearning.
When it was finally over, he scrambled to his feet, made his way to the bathroom, and purged the contents of his stomach. He took a look at his face in the mirror: so much like hers that he had to constantly prove that he was nothing like her. She caused this, he remembered with a clench of his fist. It was not enough to dull the sting in his eyes. He splashed cold water on his face. The girl in the bed was in love with him. Or at least she thought that she was. Why wasn’t that enough for him? It has to be, he told himself.
He went back to his room and nestled back into bed, trying to fit his arms around her as they had been before. But she let out one quiver and then reached an idle hand behind her to steal the rest of the blanket and hug it against herself. With one lazy movement she had inched closer to the opposite edge of the bed, and was suddenly a million miles away.