By Sierra Lister
Any time Raine feels bad, she starts cooking something. The food is always for other people. She’ll taste vodka sauce with her pinkie, dip little pieces of strawberry into brown sugar, suck a lime wedge dry—watching people take big bites of uszka and borscht.
We made a feast the night we knew treatment hadn’t worked: sweet potato mash and butter, our own cranberry sauce cooling in the fridge, acorn squash cut into rings and baked in the oven with nutmeg, roasted green peppers cooked in garlic. I scooped condensed milk from a red Eagle Brand can, Raine chopped oyster mushrooms, or I’d get the cinnamon for her.
We missed Thanksgiving because I was in the hospital, but I still wanted to make the dinner. It felt safe, and like an act of great optimism and irony.
We smoked a pipe I’d made from a whale tooth and kissed slowly on her back porch, strewn with blue string lights that seemed to me like schools of luminescent fish beneath our feet. She was wearing my orange sweater, with the bleach stains on the collar.
Already, I stepped onto a dark pink leaf that had fallen from a magnolia tree—it crunched beneath my foot. I looked up and the early evening sky was darkening, powder-blue and streaked pink like a wound. My cheeks stung a little with the cold.
We were told I was sick just weeks after we moved into the space over the pizza shop. That was two winters ago. We have our own bedroom, kitchen, and a small living room, but have to go downstairs to use the restaurant’s bathroom. I remember when we first moved in, and went to the grocery store to buy food together for the first time, but I was impatient as she lingered in the bread aisle, staring up at the dozens of different loaves, or choosing her tomatoes, meticulously holding each in her palm and searching it for blemishes. I had always shopped for food with such apathy.
Today I stand over a wooden crate of eggplants at the grocery store and pick one from the top. It is deep, deep purple, and surprisingly light. Its waxy skin shines under the fluorescents.
I hold it in both of my hands, thinking this is the last time I’ll ever hold an eggplant, and soon she won’t turn toward me holding a bag of frozen sweet peas in one hand and artichokes in the other, asking me to choose. I have often thought that now—is this the last time I’ll eat a pumpkin seed, or get up in the night to adjust the radiator? Suddenly I begin to weep.
I am trying not to go with a bitter heart. I know that everyone is dying, and how fortunate I have been. I know, I know, I know.
It rains and thunders this morning when we’re having sex—sitting up facing one another, legs interlaced. Afterward, we lay together a long time while tiny raindrops harden in the winter sun.
We dress in silence. In the kitchen, so familiar with its bowls of gnats drowned in sugar water, I watch her eat tomato slices on toast. My stomach is hard and flat as a drumhead now, and I am often so weak from not eating—though I want to. I force myself to eat one thing each day, which is easiest to do when Raine cooks for me. She leaves fat black dates and grapefruit slices by the bedside table, or makes kettle corn so the smell lingers in our little apartment.
I’ve lost twenty pounds this year, but never had that much to spare. I have not menstruated in three months. There is bright red blood in my shit. My bones ache. I need to clutch at my hip to fall asleep.
She starts boiling water for jasmine tea with honey; I pour two tiny blue glasses of almond milk. I take a blue pill and two lavender onespills, a blue and some one, and vitamins. I , then look at myself the whole time she’s washing her face with an egg-shaped bar of soap. Before I was bald, I never seriously considered the shape of my jaw.
When Raine comes back into the room, I pretend to be looking out the window, outside where everyone seems stiff and tired in their cars. She sits down next to me on the bed, her bangs dripping onto her cheek.
“You look tired. How do you feel?”
“My hands hurt today—like the muscle’s rotten.”
“The muscle’s not rotting.”
“I know that. It’s just how it feels.”
“I’m not sure.”
It’s like this all the time now—she’s worried about me feeling bad and not telling her, but if I do tell her she gets scared. I’ve decided to quit most of my medications if they’re not going to help anyway, so now I’m just taking one pill for pain and another pill for nausea. The nerves in my hands are permanently splintered, and I sometimes need to rub prescription lidocaine cream into the tips of my fingers. I walk around the apartment like a ghost, touching the purple doorknob, the spices, the iron fire escape, but not able to feel them.
It was late fall when I met Raine. Pumpkins, heavy with rot, seemed to disintegrate on every stoop. I was working at a shoe repair shop replacing the points on high heels and shining leather. I’d just graduated from college, and it was the first autumn I could remember not attending school. The smell of shoe polish made my nose run, but I was saving up for grad school—I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I spent so much time sitting on the front steps of my apartment building, ripping apart dried yellow leaves that had fallen onto the stairs. Or I'd nurse a brandy and apple cider. There was apple cider in every grocery store and I'd started buying it by the gallon.
I saw Raine in Giron Books. She was sitting by a long rectangular window reading Roses of Pieria. She sat on the floor, her back against a crushed red velvet sofa. I walked toward her and said, "Sorry to bother you, but I love Sophia Parnok. Have you read Half-voiced?"
She looked up and gave me a tiny smile, just one corner of her mouth turning. "No, would you like to tell me about it?"
She was a bartender at Mitchell’s Tap, and started coming to my place after her shift, always with whiskey fingertips and a stained maraschino tongue from the glass jars of cherries she stole from the back room. She kept the empty jars—washed them and lined them up on my kitchen windowsill so their torn paper labels could shine in the sunlight.
She’d ring the doorbell and I’d buzz her upstairs, where I’d be up reading or watching the Korean man in the alleyway below who sifted through sweet potato peels and eggshells each night.
Sometimes we’d have sex: she'd kiss one breast, then the other, then the expanse of my stomach and inside of my thighs. She'd turn me over and bite my back, my ass, my neck. I liked the feeling of her beneath me, how her hips pushed against mine when she arched her back. Sometimes she’d just kiss behind my ear and fall asleep with her head on my chest. I’d cup her cheek with my palm, one thumb moving over the space beneath that closed eye.
I come home when it’s getting dark, but she’s still shoveling the driveway with a red plastic shovel. I was seeing a friend at a bakery, where we split a pastry stuffed with cranberries. We once threw up into a bathtub together, when we were very drunk, an entire exploded universe ago. I wanted to tell her the truth, but couldn’t, so I said the news wasn’t good but there was still hope.
“Come inside,” I say when I get close enough to Raine. “Let’s do this later.”
“No, I should just get it done now. There’s going to be another storm, did you hear?” she answers, a little out of breath, trying to dislodge a chunk of hardened snow.
I hold up a tiny jar of peach purée. “I bought prosecco. Let’s make Bellini’s.”
Inside, she gets the champagne flutes from a high shelf in the cupboard. I spoon in white peaches and pour the sparkling wine slowly, and we touch our glasses together, then lay on the couch for a long time until I fall asleep with my head in the crook of her elbow.
I’ve been sleeping very well—too well—this past year while I’ve had treatment and surgeries, despite having difficulty sleeping my entire life. When I was seventeen and living in my cousin’s basement, long before I moved to Chicago, I would stay up all night lighting matches in the bathtub and using nail polish to paint knickknacks from my childhood—glass figurines of Disney princesses, odd toys—which my mother insisted I take or she’d throw them away. One night I painted a brontosaurus about as long as my arm, bright gold. Oh, I am nostalgic so often now.
Raine says everything is an opportunity for art. She wanted to be an artist, but has no strong talent and is instead mildly interested in everything: she paints red flowers onto newspapers, takes photos of me while I’m sleeping on her daybed, writes poetry about naked women. She likes to make pomegranate ice cream when she’s anxious, which we gorge on even now as we set our snow-sodden gloves and scarves on the radiator to dry. It soothes my throat and the inside of my mouth, raw with sores. We scoop it into hot chocolate and Dr. Peppers, which we drink with thick red-lined straws. The night I was diagnosed, we ate her ice cream straight from the gallon containers, sitting on our balcony, overlooking an alleyway where enormous rats picked their teeth with their own feet.
I often wonder what Raine will do when I’m dead. And who will tell her, and how, and if they’ll be careful with her when they do. It is this, more so than anything else, which fills me with to bursting with dread.
I know she’s made plans to move. If I came home from the hospital with my girlfriend, and we heard that her last resort had failed, that each of her organs were swollen with disease, that there was nothing to do, I’d call my landlord, too. I am sometimes heartbroken, licking an envelope or slicing a particularly red apple, thinking of her packing our postcards and frying pans, burning the mattress.
It is possible that I have never been this tired, even when I was bouncing in a plastic car seat atop a dryer at the Laundromat, and slept so soundly. I stand in the shower this morning, unable to pick up a bar of soap and wash myself, and I remember the ease with which I once pinched a quarter with two fingers and swallowed it while my mother was flooding the lawnmower’s engine.
I spend the afternoon dozing on the floor with a blanket and pillow. I lay my ear against the cool wood, listening for the slam of the pizza oven door, the ring of a bell when someone comes in to pick up an order of hot wings, the muffled and nearly constant conversation as dough is tossed and caught. A starling lands on the windowsill and watches me with hard black eyes.
Raine sits down on the floor near my head, idly ripping paint from the baseboard molding.
“Would you eat if I made hideg meggyleves?” she whispers.
I touch my stomach under the blanket, a rough knot of pain. “Yeah, I’d have a little.”
“I just need sour cream from the store. Do you want to come for a walk?”
“You don’t need to make it if you have to go out and buy something.”
“No, I want to get out of the apartment for a minute—I’m getting a little stir crazy.”
“Oh. I think I’ll stay here,” I say with my eyes still closed. “The air hurts my lungs.”
I wake up to the slap of the screen door, and a momentary gush of cold wind. I feel lightheaded. The first thing she does is put down her plastic bag on the counter and start searching for sour cherries in the fridge.
“Did I wake you?” she asks, pouring white wine into a copper pan, the expensive ones her Hungarian mother once owned.
I press my face into the blanket so I can’t smell the cherries as they burst with heat, bloodying the wine. I open my mouth and find I no longer speak. There is a weight on my chest. My breathing comes deep and hard.
I begin to list each extraordinary thing I have seen:
I’ve been to Lake Prince where mud bass open their mouths in horrifying O’s to swallow shreds of spinach tortillas. The kids there buy clear plastic bags of popcorn, which they throw by the handful at the fat gray fish. A few of the brave children try to wrap their arms around them as they come close to the surface—stomachs pressed flat to the wooden dock, wrists in the dark water.
Raine stands above me. She is saying: “Do you want me to call an ambulance?” She places her cool hand to my temple.
I’ve seen a dog drag a branch into the water with her teeth and paws, as though it were a raccoon to drown, while the people on shore began to clap.
I’ve eaten from an orange plastic cafeteria tray, and I’ve drunk pear juice from a frosted glass just as I was becoming thirsty.
I returned a baby bird to its nest, so new it didn’t have feathers, and I could see all the veins in its neck.
I ate gaufrette topped with lingonberries. I’ve steamed the windows of a hatchback. I tied a girl’s hair, red as a candy apple and vomit-specked, into a loose ponytail.
I’ve watched with awe the hands of someone I love roll oysters into egg and Panko.
Sierra Lister is a junior BFA Writing, Literature, and Publishing student at Emerson College in Boston. She’s been a nanny, a cancer patient, and a racecar driver. She’s currently the Editor-in-Chief of Gauge, a literary journalism magazine published bi-annually by Emerson students, and a member of Emerson College’s 2014 CUPSI team. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.