Chapter 16

My parents are extremely happy, and, to be frank, relieved they don’t have to pay for pricy medical bills for now. I update Whisper and Breathe and thousands of comments roll in, congratulating me. I celebrate this by taking more pictures and burning out a pack of batteries within weeks, which then decreases to individual shoots. I can’t stop taking pictures now that I finally have an unlimited amount of energy.

I know I should get back in the job business, but people are offering to buy my photos. So I drive around town while Gabriella brings in our rent money, our food money, our house bills.

But some days I’m tired of hearing her creep into our room, exhausted and being careful not to wake me, but I’m always wide awake. That some days she’ll turn on the shower and stay in the bathroom for about an hour, sitting in the bath tub. Or she’ll bring in a slice of orange and mute the TV, and I see flashing blue outside of my eyelids and hear her heavy sighs. I just want to ease into her, let her know it’s okay to relax, to stop working so much.

Gabriella comes home smelling like old books and coffee, a scent I normally welcome, but tonight, I just want to snuggle with her on the couch and mindlessly watch a movie.

“I’m tired, Charlie,” She starts for the bathroom.

“Gabriella.” She stops, her back still facing me. “Won’t you sit with me? I feel like I haven’t seen you forever.”

Her hand twitches. Slowly, she turns to me, and I know something has snapped.

“It has been forever,” she draws out. “Because you keep disappearing on me.”

“What?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean. Whenever I wake in the morning, you’re never there. Off taking pictures. You know when our last dinner together was? Two Sundays ago. I always make enough for us, but you come home too late. This is why we eat early, Charlie. So we can have a freakin’ dinner together.”

I’m so confused. “You want me to stop taking pictures so we can have dinner together? Fine, I can do that.”

Her face hardens. “You don’t get it. I just want one day to us, no jobs or camera beckoning us. But something always gets in the way.”

Finally we’re on the same page. “Yes, something does.”

“Because I’m trying to earn money for us to keep this apartment. Your pictures, it can’t possibly cover the bills.”

Anger flashes through me as I respond through gritted teeth, “I get four hundred dollars a week, sometimes more, for these pictures. Of course they can cover the bills.”

“All I’m saying, Charlie, is that I wish you could help more.”

“I am! And I wish you could work less so I can be with you!”

She pauses and stares past me. Her eyes are fixated on the frame of us when we were in fourth grade. “If you only knew.”

Gabriella walks into the bedroom. I get up from the couch, hitting cold air from being huddled in blankets, and stand in the doorway. My voice rises. “If I only knew what?”

She simply picks up her towel and a bathrobe.

“Gabriella, tell me.” I move toward her. “Tell me.”

“How much I hate work. I wish I could sit around all day like you, but I have to provide things for us. And I wish there was some way I can be guaranteed at least a full hour with you.”

I sink down on the bed. Gabriella doesn’t look at me and vanishes to the shower, where she does spend a long time in. There’s nothing that interests me but lying down, waiting for her to crawl in with me, but she never comes.

In the morning I find her on the couch.

 

Mark and Julie come to visit me in September, and they tell me all about college in Colorado and they’re expecting like a hundred feet of snow next month and check out the apartment. Gabriella’s at work, again.

“You’ve been here for two years now, right?” Julie asks as she glances at my frames. I nod. “Don’t you think you could decorate it? That’d be nice.”

“Julie’s going into interior design,” Mark explains. “Her dorm room is completely decked out.” I stifle a laugh. So Julie.

“Let’s go visit Gabriella,” I say. We venture down to Barnes and Noble, weave our way through coffee orders, and finally reach her. A huge smile spreads and she tells us her break will be in five minutes. She starts my normal coconut mocha frappe and asks Mark and Julie for their preference. Only one strawberries and crème for them, since apparently they share everything.

“So, what brings you guys here?” Gabriella eyes the two straws in their cup.

“Wanted to see Charlie. He was one of my best friends senior year. It’s great to come back home too, to see my family and him.” Mark smiles and looks at Julie. “It’s like a vacation to us, almost.”

“You’re sophomores, right?” Gabriella looks sullen. “I’d be a junior if it weren’t for this guy.” She nudges me playfully, but it rubs off the wrong way.

“I’d be like them if it weren’t for cancer,” I spit back.

Mark notices us being tense. “Well, it was great visiting you guys, we have to go see our parents now. I’ll be back before I leave, Charlie, I’ll text you.”

“Alright.” I watch them leave and then nearly hiss at Gabriella. “You just had to bring it up.”

“Oh, like I wouldn’t. Any time someone mentions college, I get jealous that I never got to finish.”

“But it’s not my fault I got leukemia! Do you think I wished for it or something?”

She glares at me. “My break’s over.”

This is not true. Most employees get thirty minutes to rest, and our chat lasted about fifteen. She gets up anyway, and before she reaches the blenders I call out flatly, “I’ll see you at home.” She begins a smoothie order instantly.

Out of frustration I just sit on my bed and punch a pillow over and over until I grow weak. Why do these petty little arguments keep breaking out? Some nights over whether to use paper plates or real dishes, what kind of shampoo should she get next, what movie to rent for the night. Others on replacing the shower curtain, adding drapes over the window, getting a potted plant for the corner that’ll just collect dust anyway. There’s no point to these fights since she always gets her way.

The door quietly closes. I hear her sigh, see a flash of her fingers wringing her wrist. She goes to the kitchen, pours a cup of water, and then dump it back in the sink. Wasting water. Hmm.

I sit up straighter, watching her, waiting for her to collapse on the couch, or for once, come back into this room. I’m startled when she ambles in and immediately her eyes lock on mine.

Nothing happens. It’s the same routine, retrieving her robe and towel. But the shower is on for twenty minutes, a record. I focus on a spot on the wall, blank and unmoving, and don’t slip from my position. The wall has started to turn black when I smell shampoo and see fabric out of the corner of my eye. Gabriella pushes away the covers, climb in, and then pull them back up.

“I’m sorry, Charlie.”

“I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have gotten mad.”

“No, it was me. For snapping at you. Of course you can’t get cancer out of nowhere. Let’s just forget this.”

I smile and kiss her. “It’s forgotten.” For the first night in many alone nights, we melt into each other, and feel warm all around, not just one side of our bodies. This is the first night I don’t toss and turn; I stay still in her entity.

We’re back.

 

My twenty-first birthday passes by uneventfully, with a few bottles of wine from my parents that sit unopened in the kitchen cupboard. Mark and Julie have sent an ironic Starbucks card and generously give me a one hundred dollar bill. Julie says it’s to decorate the place. My aunt and uncle also present me two hundred dollars, but half is to go to bills. Gabriella has finally slacked off for work, now being home three days a week and Sundays.

“Hey, we should get rid of some things,” I suggest during a lunch over BLT’s.

“The couch does look bad,” she agrees. “And I’d like a toothbrush holder.”

“We still have some money left over from your work and my pictures, and there‘s the stuff Julie and my relatives gave me. Why don’t we splurge?”

She laughs. “Pier One is nearby. Sure, let’s go.”

We give ourselves a budget of four hundred dollars. She pores through the bathroom objects and mirrors while I search for a comfy couch and a new dining table. I sit down on a deep red velvet couch and sink into the smoothness, the soft material. I check the price tag. Over the budget.

A sales associate appears in front of me. “Do you like it?”

“Not the price, but it’s a nice couch.”

He nods. “You’re in luck. We’re moving to a new location, so everything is 75% off. So right now, that couch is $87.50.”

“No way! Let me go find my girlfriend.” I grab Gabriella really quick, who has a basket full of accessories, and we return to the couch. She seems to really like it too. The guy goes off to fill in the order and Gabriella shows me what she found. White bird salt and pepper shakers, coffee cups and plates adorned with red and blue leaves, a bird clock, silver collage frames, a reed diffuser called first rain, several little candles of the same scent, scarlet swirled glasses, an amber leaves bowl, leaf coasters, and mini wooden birdcages. We also pick up a silver dresser, a champagne colored crackle mirror, a clear glass lamp that has wires tangled inside, a half table with birds on the stand, white chairs that has a square cutout in the back, and a small white table with silver edges. I’m assuming we’re going for a bird theme, which makes me beam. If I can’t be an ornithologist, I can at least see birds every day. Not real ones, but ones that stay in place forever. We leave feeling like we stole something. Which we did, the prices were incredible. Just fifty dollars was spared.

“It’s almost like we’re married,” Gabriella gushes as we place the accessories wherever.

That gives me an idea. “Do you want to get married?”

She puts the bird shakers on the current dining table. The furniture will arrive tomorrow. “Eventually, yeah. We’re only 21. Well, you’re 21. I’ll be there in January.”

“Yeah.” I set the plates and glasses into cabinets, trying to hide my grin.

“I mean, we’ve got time. You’re still in remission and I want to enjoy us for now. I don’t absolutely need a ring to remind me.” The mirror goes on the wall by the door.

We finish putting things up and settle on the old couch. I’ve decided to donate it, because I’m sure another person will love to have something to sit on. All the stuff I’m getting rid of will go to Goodwill. A random movie pops on a random channel and we try to watch it, but the mere mention of a marriage is looming over us. It’s true that we are still young, and in no rush, but I do want to make it official. Not now, but I know the perfect day for it.

“I’m glad we got all this stuff,” Gabriella says as she curls into me.

“Me too.” My fingers go to her hair, stroking the strands, and make their way down to her jaw, smoothing over her skin. She leans into me and we envelope into warmth, wholeness, and all thoughts of anything are completely ignored.

 

With Gabriella taking a lot of time off work and I’ve slowed my amount of days of going out for pictures, we spend a lot of time together. Every day it’s always new, different dinner plans and visits to the ice cream parlor from our childhood and trips to the forest. We grow closer, an unbreakable bond sealed with figurative glue.

On January 16, Gabriella’s birthday, we go to a restaurant that’s a bit out of Clovis, and it’s very fancy. We share a bottle of red wine, struggling to finish it, but it’s so bitter and we still act like kids, hating the taste of sour grapes, that we return it and sip water instead. The low lights make me feel like we’re the only ones in the whole place, with the occasional disturbance of a waiter serving food and sending us the bill.

Gabriella adjusts her crimson cardigan over her sparkling black dress as we get up to leave. She assumes we’re going straight home but that’s not my plan. I wind through an unfamiliar path that she’s never taken, but I did a test run yesterday with Mark, who’s here again for the break. She glances around confusedly through the growing dark, and I pull up to the opposite end of the forest. The sun peeks through the trees, descending quickly. Leaves are kicked aside, a gentle crunching here and there. The trail winds up to the tree house, with wires crawling up the trunk. She doesn’t know anything yet. She can’t.

I let her go up first, hold her heels. It’d be dangerous to go up the thin boards on really high heels. The house itself is too small to fit both of us, so we sit on the edge against the wood, and look out past the canopy. See the twinkling lights of the city far away. The sky leaves behind a brilliant wave of pink and orange, gold lines the clouds, and a soft layer of violet swims underneath. I don’t say anything because my heart is pounding and I’m gathering all the words in my head, searching for the right order, the right voice, the right time. When the colors are replaced with glittering stars, I switch on the white lights, mellow and peaceful, and the tree glows, traveling up to our faces. I can see the surprise in her eyes.

“Gabriella, do you know how long I have loved you? Seventeen years. And I never stopped. You are my life. Nothing takes my breath away, not even cancer, but you. I’ve always known we’d be together. Like the million movies we’ve seen, the boy and girl always got together no matter what happened. We had some bumps on the way, but everyone has that.” I take her hands, trembling with joy. “You’re so incredible and amazing and I just want to spend the rest of my life with you, however long that is. I want to wake up next to you every morning, I want to start a family, I want to beat leukemia and grow old with you. Gabriella.” Tears are strolling down and I let go, reach into my pocket and draw out a tiny gold box. I open it, take a shaky breath, let her stare at it, then at me.

“Will you marry me?”

The End

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