Blake stood in front of the refrigerator with the door open. It was shortly after three AM and his girlfriend, Laney, was up vomiting for the second time. His eyes poured over each item in the fridge. Celery. Milk. Sliced cheese. Leftovers from the Asian place around the corner. Beer. Coffee creamer. He spotted a package of luncheon meat and made a quick sandwich. He bit into it amidst the sound of his partner’s upheaval of her stomach.
She had been slipping further into a state of depression. Each day she seemed to talk less. He would come from work and she would come home soon after and they would sit in silence. He would ask what she wanted for dinner, and she would say she wasn’t hungry. He looked at her and tried to find the wide-eyed girl he met years ago at the boat races, but she didn’t seem to be there anymore. The further away she went, the further away he went as well.
Blake finished his sandwich and walked through the darkened house toward the bathroom. Laney was still on the floor, leaning back against the wall. He stopped outside the door and looked down at the way her hair was splayed across her right shoulder. Her hair was always his favorite thing about her. It was half way down her back and the darkest brown it could be before being black. He traced the slope of her neck with his eyes and even through the acidic smell, he smiled at the rush of affection he still felt for her.
It was Fall and their house had a great view of it. Trees lined the sides of the road and the leaves had begun to change. She mentioned how the burnt orange-colored ones reminded her of the fur of Gerald, their cat. The days hadn’t gotten too cold yet so they kept the windows open and a decent breeze pushed its way into the room. The mixture of vomit and cool October air reminded Blake of a time when he played football as a kid. He tackled someone so hard they threw up on the field, and he had never been more proud of himself. He smiled at the fond memory and then put it away.
Laney coughed softly. It was more of a throat cleanse than a cough. Blake headed back out to the kitchen to grab a glass from the cupboard, filled it with water and brought it back to the bathroom. He sat on the floor in the doorway and extended his arm. Laney took the glass and sipped it, swishing out her mouth and spitting it in the toilet, then took the rest of the liquid down in one.
“Thank you. The cool makes my throat feel better.”
She turned her body so she could stretch out and lay her head in his lap. The light in the bathroom was brighter than he would have liked, since she had the overhead light on instead of the vanity bulbs above the mirror, but he wasn’t in an opportune position to reach up and switch them. Instead he closed his eyes and ran his fingers through her hair. It reminded him of their first date in which they took exactly the same position, outside under the clear sky. She mentioned how the stars seemed brighter when you’re with someone you love.
When she first showing signs of slowing down, he thought of how his grandmother had done the same when she began experiencing the beginning of Alzheimer’s. His grandfather did everything he could to try and keep her around as long as possible. He got letters and journals out of boxes in the basement and set them on her bedside table. He thought maybe jogging her memory with some of their best years would help her hold onto herself a bit longer.
It took less than a year before she woke up screaming because a stranger was in her bed.
Laney stopped reading. That was what really clued Blake into her situation. She was the kind of person that would finish a book every month, almost like she was part of a book club. She didn’t much care for book clubs, though, saying that she had her own vision of the characters and the world of the story and she didn’t want anyone else to ruin that for her. So when she stopped escaping, he knew something was wrong.
When she came home from work she would sit cross-legged at the foot of their bed and pet the cat, Gerald. He would curl up on her legs and she would scratch behind his ears the way he liked. She stopped going for runs and planning meals. About a month into it Blake came home from work and realized the whiteboard was still empty. There wasn’t much food in the house since she was the one that liked to shop. Slowly but surely, their household unraveled while he tried to figure out what to do.
The whole second month he tried to do something nice for her every day of the week. He went to the store and got a bunch of her favorite stuff so he could pack her lunches for work, and he’d leave notes in them for her to read. He noticed she picked up a little bit after the first week, and she even started asking him how his day was again when they’d see each other after their shifts. It lasted through the second week, but starting into the third she went quiet again.
He noticed she wasn’t eating very much. She would nibble on a handful of pretzels or have a few bites of watermelon, but never a full meal. It worried him when he watched her. She would chew slowly and stare at the wall, seeing past it into something he couldn’t know. She was gone somewhere else, and all he knew was that he’d do anything to bring her home. And that included waiting.
She yawned in his lap and reached up to rub her right eye. He tucked her hair behind her ear and rubbed her shoulder. They sat in silence for probably twenty minutes before Laney sat up and turned to face him.
“Don’t be,” said Blake. “I know you’re going through a hard time and I told you I’d be here to help.”
“It doesn’t feel fair. Putting you through this.”
She pulled her index finger and thumb down around the sides of her mouth, then brushed the crumbs of sleep to the floor by rubbing her fingers together.
“Let’s go sit out back,” said Blake, getting up and extending his hands down to her to help her. “I’ll call out of work today. We can go lay in the grass like we used to and watch the sun come up. Then if you feel like going back to sleep we can do that, or we can go for a drive.” He leaned in and kissed her softly on the cheek. “Whatever you want to do, I’m here with you.”
She pulled him into a tight hug and stood there unmoving. He reached up and smoothed her hair down her shoulder blade with a flat hand and she mimicked his timing with the running of her nails across his lower back. Her hair smelled like sweat and sleep and faintly of the vanilla almond shampoo she used. She stepped back and smiled at him, then turned to the sink so she could brush her teeth.
He stood and watched her. She jutted her hip out to one side and leaned on the sink with her left hand. She could see him out of the corner of her eye and she smiled as she brushed up and down, side to side. He was glad to see her smiling again. When she finished she dried her face on the towel hanging on the back of the door, then moved toward the hallway and pulled him along with her.
As they passed through the still dark house Blake grabbed the blanket off the back of the couch and followed Laney through the patio door. The sky was starting to dust a slate blue and the stars were still easily visible. He spread the blanket out in the middle of the grass and laid on his back, and once he was settled she curled up next to him with her head on his chest. He put an arm around her and she locked their fingers together.
“I know I can be hard to be with sometimes,” said Laney. He could feel the way her body slumped with disappointed breath.
“So can I. Everyone is difficult in some way. You may not like the way someone chews loudly or the way they put the toilet paper roll on upside down. You may have a hard time dealing with how someone turns into another person when they drink or how they’re too rigid to be behind the wheel. Whatever it is, we all have some difficulty. Some of us are better at hiding it than others, and some of us need extra help but don’t know how to ask for it.”
“I’ve always liked how insightful you are.”
Blake smiled and licked his lips. “I’ve always liked how you chew on the side of your thumb when you read. You get so into a story sometimes you don’t notice that Gerald is chewing on your laptop cord and I can’t help but laugh.”
“I love you more than my bookshelf, you know.” Laney’s voice was soft and Blake could hear the faint shake of her exhale.
“I guess things are getting pretty serious then,” said Blake.
They both laughed and stared up at the sky until Laney’s breathing slowed into a light snore.