(published 3rd September 2018)
“Do you remember-”
“Probably not.” A veiny, wrinkled hand smacks a veiny, wrinkled forearm, causing the speaker to cackle at his friend’s expense. His eyes crinkle further, eyes turning into small crescent moons, crows-feet becoming more pronounced.
“Shut up, you. I’m trying to be sentimental.” His friend adjusts her glasses, puffing out little bursts of air to show her disapproval. She tightens the shawl around her. He knew he’d never stop being in awe of her, even after all these years, so he just smiles and motions for her to continue.
“Do you remember, when we were kids, how everyone thought we were going to get married?” She leans back in her rocking chair, watching the orange sky fading to pinks and purples. She never looks at him; she knows he’ll answer.
“Ah, yes. They were all wrong.” A wry grin spreads across his face and for a moment she can see the ghost of the man he used to be. “Too bad we both turned out to be sexual deviants.” She laughs, tilting her head back against the plush neck rest of her chair.
He watches as her fingers fiddle with the silver ring on her left hand. He follows the lines of her hand up to her wrist, up to the bit of her ashy inner arm that her sweater doesn’t quite cover. There, more prominent than ever, the black tendrils stand starck against her skin. It still looks the same as when they met, still looks vaguely like a salamander leaping to some imaginary leaf. It’s the same mark that he has on his right shoulder. He remembers how they used to color each other’s marks in, chattering the way children do about what they think the future will be like. When he meets her eyes, her expression mirrors his: soft, faraway, and so very grateful.
“Do you wish we could go back?” he asks suddenly. She cocks her head to the side and it’s so much like when they were young, he has to look away.
“Go back? To being young?” He nods. She considers for a moment. “Nah, I like getting to be cranky and everyone just accepting it. Plus, I can fart and no one can shame me.” She pats his arm. “We’ve done okay, don’t you think? We’ve done a lot, learned a lot, and fucked up a lot.” She rubs his arm up and down, a thoughtful expression on her face. He wonders briefly if she’s thinking of when they were in college, away from each other for the first time. He wonders if she’s thinking about how both their marks faded to the point they almost disappeared. He wonders if she’s remembering when he confessed how in love with her he was.
She squeezes his arm then, sad smile on her lips. She was definitely thinking about when he confessed.
“Yeah, we’ve definitely had some times.” He turns his attention back to the sky. He’s always liked how brilliant the colors looked when the suns started to dip below the horizon. The closer of the suns always disappears faster while the further one likes to take its time. It’s always beautiful and with the smog from the city, it looks just like those paintings. The lilac mountains stand proud and from this porch on the side of a hill, they have a great view of the city below. He wonders if he’s too old to dye his hair to match the mountains. He knows what she’d say: “You’re never too old to do whatever the fuck you want.”
“Remember when you got married? That was probably the best day of our lives.” He doesn’t know what made him say that, and judging from her face, she’s just as surprised. “Seeing my best friend happier than anyone else in the world at that moment was the best thing. You were glowing brighter than the stars. It was…” He takes her hand into his. “It was the best day of my life.”
“People thought I was crazy,” she whispers. “Not because I was marrying a woman, but because I wasn’t marrying my soulmate.” He squeezes her hand, remembering when she told him about her parents’ reactions.
“Just because we’re soulmates doesn’t mean we fall in love,” he whispers back. Even if he had once been in love with her, he knew even then that the romantic love wasn’t destined to last forever. Not the way their friendship has.
“I know. Even after all these years…” She starts rocking, back and forth, the chair creaking. She sighs. “I miss her.”
“I know you do. You’ll see her again.”
“You’ll see her sooner than me.” It’s not a jab, nor is it untrue. He doesn’t feel any anger at what she said. He sighs and closes his eyes. He’s been ignoring the pain in his legs, in his abdomen for the better part of an hour. He knows it’s almost time to take more of those ridiculous pills, the ones that had names he could never remember. He knows they’re only to make him comfortable. There isn’t any reason to cure him. Even she would agree with that.
“I’ll be sure to tell her that you found yourself a nice, younger lady.” He laughs as she yells, slapping his shoulder. “Hey! Hey, watch where you hit. You might rupture something.” He means it as a joke, but her face pales anyway. She mutters an apology, fingers fiddling with her shawl, the same way she did when they were kids. Warmth blooms in his chest at the sight. He takes back her hand and kisses her knuckles.
Behind them, the door swings open, his nurse coming out with a tray with water and small cups of pills. They smile robotically and inform her that visiting hours are now over. He knows she wants to defy the nurse, but he just gives her the brightest smile he can muster.
“I’ll see you next week.” She nods, gives him a hug, and brushes past the nurse on her way out. He leans back, eyes shut, and accepts the pills.
They sit, like they have many times before. She holds his hand, like usual, fingers interlacing, thumb tracing the tendons like they have many times before. He rests against a tower of pillows. In a corner, a monitor beeps, keeping time with his heartbeat. The last rays of sunshine filter through the large window off to the right side of the room.
She sighs and smooths the skin between his thumb and pointer finger. His breathing is ragged now, deep breaths catching in his throat on their way to his lungs. She traces the outline of his face, the face she’s known for almost as long as she’s known her own. His eyes are closed, face carefully blank.
“You don’t have to pretend on my account,” she teases. “You old man, still trying to be a strong upstanding member of society when they’ve forgotten about you.”
“You haven’t forgotten about me,” he mutters, opening one eye and quirking his lips. A hand quivers over hers before weakly patting it.
“Yeah, well, there’s time for that yet.” She grins when he makes an indignant sound, hand squeezing. “You know I could never forget about you.” She struggles around the bed railing to rest her head on his thigh.
“Do you think your mark is going to disappear when I die?” She lifts her head and gives him a pointed glare.
“What kind of question is that?”
“A perfectly valid one.” He shifts, clearly trying to make room for her on the bed. He starts coughing, an ugly, harsh sound that makes her chest tighten in fear. She stands slowly and gracelessly climbs into the bed. They sit quietly, shoulder-to-shoulder; him recovering, her wishing he could’ve had a softer end.
“I don’t think it will. You’re still my soulmate, even after death.” She rests her head on his shoulder. “Besides, I’m so old, I don’t have much time left either. How foolish would it be to have another soulmate so close to death.” He chuckles weakly next to her. He pats her thigh, like he’s done many times before.
“Are you excited to see your husband again?” She snuggles close. She can feel the air leaving his lungs in short bursts, she can hear his heartbeat echoed in his chest. She feels him sigh.
“I am. If there’s really an afterlife or whatever the religious wants us to believe.” His head tips back, resting on the pillows. “I’ve missed him. I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long without him.” She pinches his arm.
“You’ve lasted this long because of me, I’ll have you know.” His laughter turns into coughing. She leans over the side of the bed and grabs his glass of water. He nods his thanks as he drains it. He doesn’t have much time left.
“Have you eaten?”
“I know what you’re trying to do.”
“Is it working?”
She turns onto her side, arm gently pulling him close. She whispers into his chest, “Just go to sleep. I’ll be here. I’m not leaving.” He kisses the crown of her head, burying his nose into her pale pink hair. The fact that even after all these years she still refuses to accept her hair color as anything other than unnatural has him smiling.
“You know people shit themselves when they die.” He giggles when she pinches him.
“Good thing you haven’t eaten anything solid in two days then.” She buries her head into his chest. “I’m not leaving.”
“You’re making this a lot harder than it needs to be,” he grunts. It feels like his nerves are on fire, heat and pain prickling throughout his body. Every place his body touches hers the pain is tenfold but he can’t bring himself to ask her to move.
“What a shame we’re both too stubborn for our own good.” She inhales, trying to find that particular scent that was purely him. Everything in the room smells too clean, too clinical. She wishes not for the first time he agreed to moving into one of those home themed hospices. At least this room has a good view of the mountains.
His breathing begins to slow, his body fighting to keep conscious even though his mind has already given in. She ignores the tears floating in her eyes, choosing to instead focus on how it felt to have her best friend in her arms. She pretends they’re kids again having a sleepover and he’s had another nightmare. She starts humming that one song, the one that they sang to each other when the other was feeling bad. His breathing slows further, evening out before stuttering. Her tears flow freely now, her humming becoming choked as she tries not to sob.
The suns have completely set now and with a shudder, he stops breathing. She lets herself cry, hand blindly searching for the nurse call button. This hurts more than when her wife died, but knowing he’s better off, that she’s better off for knowing him, soothes her enough. They were lucky, getting to live nearly all their lives together.
The nurse enters and has her move so they may move him and sanitize the room. She’s ushered out, and she watches as his body is wheeled out, down the hall to a place she can’t follow. She pulls her sweater tight.
When she changes later that night, she notices her mark is crudely colored in, just like he used to. If she listens carefully, she can still hear him laughing.
Lorenza Shabe is a poet, fiction writer, and fanfic extraordinaire. Her work centers around identity and fantasy. There’s always a little sex and a lot of unapologetic exploration of heritage and queerness. From her personal research into K-pop idols and her own family history, she questions what it means to exist, what it means to love, and how corgis ended up with the cutest butts in history.