Breakaway peg-legged tables and vines growing in the cracks of your home. Cat fur fallen in the gaps of your sofa, the creature purring a room away. You grab your hair and pull it out like weeds. Like it’s a thing that was put there, not yours anymore.

“I’m not dying fast enough,” you say.

The doctors gave you a couple months and you spent them already. I want you to die slower, to give me time to learn. I want you to die backwards. I want the hair to crawl back into your scalp and for your self-pity to wallow itself into pride. I wish you were a bird and your dying was a little stir and croak, devoid of any reflection.

I tell you there’s still a chance, but these are chapped lips slapping chapped sounds and clapping sad lies. I wish you were reincarnated and I could meet you in a seaside cafe and ask you how your day’s been, and see you look at this forty-year-old man with the eyes of a stranger and years yet unlived and turn your back and walk out through ordered rows of coffee tables and tea-pot vapor.

“Not fucking fast enough,” you say, and kick away the crumpled pack of an apple snack. Your legs are raw twigs polished. The French in your accent used to be a singing thing from sleazy karaoke bars and unmade beds and upturned sheets. I don’t know how to grieve someone I’m not sure I love, and I’m afraid I’ll fall in love after you’re in the grave and I can’t kiss you without dysphoria in my lips and the memories of new, unmet women.

I drive you to the doctor through the rain pitting down hard on stop-and-go cars and pedestrians moving through the rifts like the cancer cells in you. I wonder what would happen if I lurched forward and broke the legs of the man passing, smash him against the back of the van blinking slow and soaked break lights. Would curiosity amass people like worms to an infection? Would they drag me out of the car and onto the wet tarmac and knead my flesh with hesitant kicks?

“I feel sick,” you say, staring at your shoes. You wait for death like you got in the wrong train and there’s no right stop anymore. I wish you didn’t say it: “I’m so sick of it.”

I ask you if I can get you something, and you shake your head and zigzag a finger on the touchscreen of your phone and stare with numb eyes at the numb glow of a factory-reset screensaver. Around you old people sit and observe your young dying with self-reassuring pity, wax corpses creased with nitrogen mustards and synthetic congeners.

The doctor calls us in with well-practiced boredom as the TV plays commercials to itself. I get up and you pull me down again and go alone, and I wait in the middle of these melted-plastic chairs and asymmetric tile-lines. I wish I could break and burn it. Clean those stains on the wall and bleach the dark spots of spilled coffee. Vacuum finger-bit flakes of skin from the floor and pull the bent ceiling fan down and hope to find some quiet in the changing.

You come back and hold the doorway and tremble. I don’t know if it’s the fat torn from your bones making you cold or the repressed, obsessed pain of your body. You blink and say: “I’ll have to stay.” You say: “I love you.”

I love you too. But I don’t know how, and I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know how to love the dying. The breaking proportions of your body language, the sweat on the lazy, transparent fur of your upper lip. Your brittle bones fevered with chemical-heated blood. I don’t know how to love what I can’t solve.

Day by day your skin tightens. Your chest wretches itself up and down, sheathed in sweaty white. I count your breaths instead of sheep. I don’t know how hard to hold your hand. It’s just a straw-boned thing now, lighter than the light-brown of your hair around the pillow.

“I’m sorry,” you say.

I say it’s alright. I say I love you, again. I hope it’s true.

You die on an overcast morning. Your hand tightens around mine like crow’s feet. I hope I don’t break your fingers as I pull them away. The nurse comes and says she’s sorry and I scream at her that she forgot last night’s food tray, the untouched apple juice and plain rice and bland plastic. I scream at her that the walls have not been scrubbed clean, that there’s dust on the edges between the mattress and the bed risers.

And I love you, when the geometry settles. When you’re gone and spent and the nurses sanitize your silence. I love you when your body turns to paperwork, each signature a limb or a lung or the skin of your eyelids to be grafted over someone’s flaws. I love you when I don’t have to anymore.

And I loved you before this fucking monster. Before it broke the shapes and outlines of everywhere you ever were. You’re gone now and the monster’s gone with you, and I only know how to love you in the perfect symmetry of an empty room.

***

Mário Coelho is a Portuguese writer, translator and occasional legal interpreter for expats in sticky situations. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Pseudopod, and a number of publications in his native country. He is represented by Stevie Finegan at Zeno Agency. You can find his multilingual ramblings on Twitter at @MSeabraCoelho. Feel free to say hi and compliment his hair.

Photo by Nevin Ruttanaboonta on Unsplash

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