Every morning, I woke up convinced that the earth was playing tricks on me.
Today, I got the newspaper after pulling on old sneakers that I never untied and flipping the switch on the coffee maker. The grumble filled the kitchen and soon, the oaky smell melted into the rest of the house. The grass was sprinkled with dew, small droplets catching sunlight like marbles spilled on the lawn. Our house was in one of those neighborhoods where every house looked the same, which never bothered me—the same shade of off-white, the landscape pristine and tended to weekly, the lampposts at the end of each driveway. What did bother me was how close the houses were to each other. Between our house and the neighbor’s, I could stretch my arms out and touch both structures at once. We always kept our windows shut.
I picked up the paper in its wet, plastic sleeve and as I stood, noticed a purple flower growing near the mailbox. Its long petals created a bulb that reached above green, spreading leaves. It was the same kind as yesterday and the day before. Except yesterday’s flower appeared by the front door. The day before that, one grew near the end of the driveway. They showed up all over the grass, dotting the yard in random areas.
I stomped it like I would a lit cigarette, just like I did to the others on the mornings prior. I dug the grooves on the bottom of my shoe into the flower and twisted, burying it within the dirt as much as possible. I killed them for you.
Tammy offered to help us move. Or rather, insisted on it. I wasn’t sure if I wanted her there. I thought that it might be better if it was just us. We built this house together, and I thought that we should go out the same way. But Tammy pressed.
“You can’t say no, John,” she told me months earlier. “After all we’ve been through, it’s the least I can do.”
Now, with the U-Haul parked in the driveway halfway full and the house nearly empty, Tammy arrived with her arms full of groceries. “I figured I could make dinner,” she said after we embraced. “Like old times, yeah?”
I often pictured Tammy still pregnant. I thought about the times she would come over, sink into the recliner with a glass of cold-pressed orange juice and tell me every time she felt the baby kick so I could run over and feel it with her. With my hand just above her navel, I felt a thump through the skin. I imagined a little hand reaching back for mine through Tammy, the little fingers spreading outward. Tammy and I would talk for hours until she either had work to do at home or was craving something I didn’t have in the house.
“It’s so empty,” she said and looked around. She walked to the kitchen, passing the pool table in the foyer which you still needed to dissemble, and started pulling out the groceries—asparagus, quinoa, extra firm tofu.
“Where’s Logan?” Tammy asked.
“Picking up more boxes. He should be back soon.” While you were gone, I packed the photos I didn’t want you to see. They were in the U-Haul now on top of heavier things, some pictures still in their frames.
“You guys have been working hard so I figured I could make something special tonight,” Tammy said. By my terms, “special” did not include veggies and tofu, but this was one of the reasons why we picked her.
Tammy won us over almost immediately. Her smile was infectious and genuine, and she talked with confidence. She wore a plain t-shirt and jeans to the interview, her hair in a high bun, while everyone else we met with wore dresses and blazers. Tammy was different from the beginning. We thought she was a good balance—on one hand, she seemed laid back and easygoing, but on the other, strict about diet and exercise. She rambled for a bit about living chemical-free, and we smiled and nodded along. We talked for hours in our first meeting, until the sun started to set.
“I really liked her,” you said on the way home, your hand on my thigh and the other gripping the top of the steering wheel. “I can’t place it exactly, but I have a good feeling.”
And four months after that, as she sank into the thin plush of the sonographer’s table, Tammy told us how fat she felt. You told her that you hadn’t seen any change.
“It’s all in your head,” I said. She nodded.
“Lay off all those veggies, will yah?” you said and we laughed.
The doctor entered with a clipboard and introduced herself. She turned on the monitor that was positioned above Tammy’s head and sat next to her. She pulled the probe from a drawer under the screen, along with tube of gel. “It’ll feel cold for a second,” she said. The window’s vertical blinds were halfway open, and a tree grew outside. Its branches rattled against the glass.
The doctor smeared the light blue gel over Tammy’s abdomen and pressed the transducer to her skin, moving it in circle motions around her belly button. White flecks flittered across the monitor until the baby’s shape appeared framed in an oval of black. I held your hand and we watched together.
“Do you want to know the sex?” the doctor asked, and I nodded. “It’s a girl.”
We did the swirl method because we didn’t want to know whose she was biologically. Both of our sperm was mixed together and put into Tammy. But once she came into the world and grew, her face becoming fuller and freckles sprinkled across her nose, I swore she had the same color hazel in her eyes as yours: the circle of emerald blending into a light brown, some gray hues spreading outward. Sometimes, when I looked at you and saw the green in your eyes, she was still alive.
You got back to the house only minutes after Tammy arrived. You carried deconstructed boxes under your arms and set them near the pool table. You and Tammy embraced.
“You got bangs again?” you asked, smiling. “I thought we talked about that.”
“Yeah, thanks a lot,” she said. She smiled back and hit your arm.
“I keep forgetting about the damn pool table,” you said. “I’ll get it over with before dinner.” I helped you turn it upside down, its dark green surface heavy into the wooden floor. You started twisting the legs off.
You begged for the pool table when we first moved in.
“This place is perfect for hosting,” you said as we set up the pool table only weeks after we closed on the house. We were following along with a YouTube video opened on your laptop. Neither one of us had set one up before.
One night, after the pool table had been erected and placed in the foyer, I sleepwalked in the middle of the night and woke up on the pool table. I hadn’t sleepwalked since childhood. My back ached for days, and you laughed about it for months.
While the pool table was something we used often with friends after we first moved in, it soon became just another table, one that held jackets we took with us on our way out the door and the place where we folded laundry together.
I heard you breaking it down, and I was still packing the kitchen, putting away utensils and asking Tammy if she needed to use anything along the way.
Sometimes, during the mundanities of life, like when I wiped down the windowsills or ironed your work shirts or packed up the kitchen supplies, I remembered the way my voice shattered from your mouth that morning. The sun was not up yet, and I felt my way through the blackness of our house before my eyes were able to adjust. I remembered that way you said that you had fallen asleep. “I forgot,” you said, and you couldn’t stop saying it. “I forgot. I forgot. I forgot.”
We sat on the couch and ate the food with Jeopardy in the background, the sofa’s black leather shining in the TV light. It tasted better than I anticipated. Tammy talked about how much she hated her job. We were the last couple that she had a baby for.
“This corporation bullshit is just getting to me,” she said, chewing through a piece of curried tofu. “I keep telling myself it’s only for now. It’s only for the money. Gotta keep looking ahead, right?”
You sat next to me, nodding with the conversation and often saying correct questions to Alex Trebek’s answers. Our knees touched.
We sold our dining room table weeks ago. Now, there was an empty space between the living room and kitchen where it used to be—the floors marked from years of scooting chairs away from the table and lines ran parallel with the natural marks of the wood, scarring it like stretch marks.
We agreed to look for a new table once we were settled into the new place across town, a two-bedroom townhouse. We wanted something closer to the city and smaller.
As I chewed on a stringy piece of asparagus, I looked through the sliding glass door, out into our backyard. The sun was just about to set. The fence still stood tracing the lot’s perimeter, and the grass was the tallest I’d ever seen it.
Tammy used to bring gifts each time she came over, and each time she came her stomach grew bigger. Once, at around six months, she brought a diffuser with a small bottle of lavender essential oil.
“Just add some water, a little oil, and you’re good to go,” Tammy said, plugging in the device on the kitchen counter. “Lavender is good for peace, okay? And once she comes, you’ll need all you can get.” She smiled and poured the water into the bottom. She added a drop of the clear oil with precision, her tongue sticking out to the corner of her mouth in focus.
You looked at me and shook your head, but smiled. Through all of Tammy’s gifts, you were a good sport.
Even after Savannah was born, Tammy brought presents when she visited.
When Savannah was four, Tammy took a trip out to Mount Shasta. When she came back, she showed us pictures on her phone. We were huddled on the same couch, and rain was falling lightly, echoing through the house in light beats. Tammy swiped through them and commented on each one.
Savannah, sitting on my lap, looked with us. “Aunt Tam!” she said, pointing at each picture Tammy was in.
“You wouldn’t believe the size of these crystals out there,” she said. “I mean look at this sucker!” She stood next to an amethyst, cracked open and glistening purple, about the same height as her. In the picture, Tammy smiled in a knit beanie that slouched to the back of her head, her bangs cut blunt just above her eyebrows, and she held a peace sign to the camera.
“Which reminds me,” she said. She opened her purse and, one by one, pulled out pink stones, each one the width of her hand. She dropped four on the couch between us.
“Rose quartz,” she said. She told us that some people called them the love crystals. She smiled and told us she got them for a reason.
“And what’s that?” I asked. Tammy smiled and Savannah picked up one of the stones, holding it up to make sure I saw.
“You’re supposed to bury them at each corner of your property,” she said. “So, I figured we could do that here.”
Savannah held the stone inches from my faces. “I know,” I said. “Pretty, huh?”
“They’re good for the energy and all that,” Tammy said.
You smiled. “Yeah, why not.”
Tammy grabbed the remaining crystals and walked towards the sliding glass door. “Sweet!” she said.
“Now?” I asked. “It’s still raining.”
“Oh, c’mon,” she said, jolting up the metal lock. “It’d be fun for Savannah, too.” Tammy looked back and held out her hand as Savannah walked towards her, a rose quartz still in her palm.
“It’s fine. It looks like it’ll stop soon, anyway,” you said, turning to me.
“Y’know, John, some people feel the rain,” Tammy said. “Others just get wet.” She slid the door open and took Savannah’s hand, leading her out into the yard.
I always wished I had Tammy’s attitude about things, but I never really understood her eccentric ways. She always checked her horoscope and texted me when something was spot-on accurate. She read my palm once, telling me what it meant that my heart line was so much longer than my life line.
I never understood anything religious or spiritual for that matter. I didn’t grow up in a religious household, and I never prayed. Sometimes I came close, maybe, when I made wishes. I would hook my middle finger over my pointer and clench my eyes. But that was before; I stopped making wishes a long time ago.
Jeopardy had now started its final round, but I missed the clue. The sun was nearly gone, and the backyard darkened. We finished up the dinner, the plates still balancing on our knees, and I couldn’t stop staring at the backyard.
“Oh this one’s easy,” you said, your eyes fixed on the contestants jotting down answers. “I swear they’ve been making these questions easier lately.”
The theme song played, and I turned to Tammy. She chewed and watched the TV with you. “I almost forgot about the crystals you buried,” I said.
There was silence; from the corner of my eye, I saw you turn to me.
“Yeah,” Tammy said. She looked at me and smiled. “That was a fun day, wasn’t it?”
I remembered watching Tammy and Savannah through the glass. The rain was almost over, and they both bent over the grass in the corner. I watched Tammy show Savannah the rose quartz and then drop it in the dirt. Savannah shoveled the earth they dug up back over the hole and flatten it, her small hands patting the ground. You were washing dishes behind me, and in the moment I turned to tell you how happy I was that Tammy stayed close with to us, Savannah opened the door and ran through the house, her rain boots stamping mud along the wood into the kitchen.
“We did it!” she sang with her arms waving above her.
I yelled after her, but I couldn’t help but laugh.
You picked her up from under her arms. “C’mon, honey,” you said. “Let’s get you cleaned.”
Only one person got the right answer, and they wagered enough of their money to win the episode. You turned to Tammy. “This place was trashed after that.” And I saw you form a smile, barely, and laugh quickly—a rush of air exhaled through your nose.
“I felt so bad,” Tammy said, and we all laughed.
It was almost a year since Savannah had been gone, and this was the first time I could remember you talking about her and smiling. Not the forced way, either, but a real smile that started from within and moved its way out naturally.
Maybe it was a good idea that Tammy came after all. Maybe this was the progress I had been waiting for.
I still thought of it as your side of the bed, even though you stopped sleeping with my a while ago. I heard the TV just outside of the bedroom door, the news anchors humming through the wall.
Our doctor told us that the adjustment would take time, that things needed to happen naturally, that everyone grieved in different ways.
I started smoking cigarettes again. Although I still thought the smell of the smoke was nasty, the feeling was worth it. I stopped eating for a bit, too. I couldn’t force food down no matter what it was. The longest I went consecutively without consuming anything was almost three days before you stuck a frozen pizza in the oven. I lay on the couch and watched talk shows sideways. You put a slice on the coffee table without saying anything, the cheese steaming and the edges of the pepperoni circles curling upward.
“Y’know, Tammy would be pissed if she saw this,” I said, trying to break the silence. You didn’t laugh.
You started sleeping on the couch when Savannah started sleeping with a CPAP machine, a year before she died. Even though the doctors explained that the model we purchased was the best, you had your doubts.
“Nothing can happen once it’s on, okay?” the doctor explained to us the day we made the purchase. She showed us the bands that went behind the ears and the extra piece of elastic that went behind the head to ensure its placement, demonstrating on a plastic head.
The florescent lights buzzed in the office above us and made the crisp, white walls even whiter. Through the office’s window, I saw Savannah playing in the hospital’s waiting room. A plastic slide was tucked in the corner with puzzle pieces spread around and picture books opened. Some other kids went down the slide, landing on the plush mat at its base, and Savannah played with an abacus, carefully focused on the blue line of beads, moving them back and forth on the stick.
“And it’s really only one button,” the doctor continued, explaining the functions and the simplicity of the machine. “And, of course, if you have any questions, I’m always here.”
During the nights, the rattle of the machine echoed through the air, and we eventually got used to it.
I still stayed on my side of my bed, near the far wall, in case one night you woke up and wanted to come back to me.
Sometimes it was hard to fall asleep without you.
Sometimes I heard your breath deepen almost into a snore. The TV would still play. I swore I could recite every word to every infomercial that played on a loop until morning. Sometimes I would stand at the door and watch you sleep before crawling back to bed. The AC would kick on, deepening the silence. I remembered the way we would fall asleep: holding each other but twisting away once it got too hot under the covers. Sometimes, before bed, I remembered what it felt like when you touched me. You used to kiss me like you meant it—your facial hair pressed onto mine, soft yet prickly like velvet and sandpaper. Your hand would grip the base of my neck, your fingerprints searching into my pulse. Your lips would move to my chin, my clavicle, my chest. My hands would make fists in the sheets, wrinkling them in imperfect circles.
I opened my eyes and I was standing.
I was near the kitchen, in front of the hallway that led to the guest room. I stood there in my underwear squinting, waiting for my vision to adjust. My eyes were wide, searching the darkness for something to latch onto. I found my own eyes in the mirror hanging at the end of the hallway. A side table sat under the mirror with an empty vase on top. I didn’t pack it yet because I wanted to get flowers before Tammy got here, but I never did.
The floor was cold, and my nipples were hard.
I heard talking coming from the guest room, the entrance to the side of where the mirror hung, but I couldn’t make out any words. The door was opened but barely, enough for one eye to look inside. I walked to it slowly.
Tammy wore a t-shirt too large and faced away from the door. She stood in the back of the room near the closet, her head tilted upward toward the air vent. The AC was on, blowing cold air in her face, and I heard her whispering. I could not make out the words, only a few consonants here and there. I stood there for a few moments, the darkness surrounding me, and I tried to make out what she was saying. When I glanced into the mirror again, I saw a figure behind me.
“John?” you asked.
I turned to you, and exhaled. “I think,” I said, catching my breath. “I think I was sleepwalking again.”
You placed your hand on my shoulder. Your warm skin was a relief. “C’mon,” you said. “Let’s get you back to bed.”
I looked into the guest room before walking away, and Tammy was asleep.
We packed the rest of the house the next day. Everything except the furniture was put away. We were saving the big stuff for another trip back, once the smaller boxes were unpacked at the new place. The U-Haul was just about full. The pool table was broken down, shoved to the side, and boxes piled to the roof. I made sure that each one was labeled.
I pulled the door down and snapped the lock on the latch shut. We stood there for a moment with our life in front of us, packed in tissue paper and taped in cardboard. The night was brightened by the lamppost at the end of the driveway, the yellow bulb giving enough light for me to see the darkened circles under your eyes, the creases near your mouth, the deep cupid’s bow curving on your upper lip.
“Remember when we moved in?” I asked.
“Feels like forever.”
“I was so fucking nervous.” I looked up. The silver clouds were shielding stars.
“Yeah, you and me both.” You smiled.
There was another silence soon stopped by wind that moved the bushes like soft static. You turned to me, smiled, and I wanted to feel you again, the way I remembered. I wanted to feel the way you pressed your hand into the back of my neck and looked at me until I was hypnotized enough to kiss you. You would press your body into mine, holding me as if I was about to float away.
When we moved in, we were different. The house, with barely any furniture besides our bed and dresser, was ours to build together. We planted trees without telling the neighborhood officials and set up the pool table in the foyer. We painted the walls, changed the curtains often, and picked out light fixtures. But now, even though the house was bare, something made it feel heavy, like something was still there. It felt like lungs on an inhale—full and empty all at once.
“I have a favor,” I said. I turned to you and held your hands, pressing my fingertips into your palms. “Can you try to sleep in our bed tonight?” I said “our” naturally.
You sighed and looked down at the driveway. “Of course,” you said, nodding towards the cracked pavement.
Later that night, you settled in next to me, and I felt your body sink deeper into the bed as you sighed.
“You all right?” I asked.
“Yes.” You said it simply. Not a whisper, a statement.
The TV stayed on in the living room because the noise helped you sleep.
Although it was dark, you were close enough that I could see your silhouette—your back long, your head resting into the pillow, eyes straight, your arm disappearing within the blankets. Both of our bodies were flat and faced the ceiling fan spinning. Your hand searched through the sheets and rested on my thigh. It was all I needed to know you were there. Your palm was warm and I imagined my leg hairs tucked into your life line.
That night, I fell asleep with my fingers crossed.
I knew I was awake before I opened my eyes. The sun poured into the bedroom with a delicate brightness. I was covered below my waist—my legs wrapped within the sheets, silk and reflecting sunlight like liquid. The springs in the mattress dug into my ribs, and a circle of drool the size of a petal stained the pillow. I turned over, and you were gone. The door was ajar, and your side of the bed was empty. You must have left sometime after I fell asleep.
I sat up, planted my feet onto the wood floor, and lifted myself to stand. My back ached, probably from lifting boxes and moving furniture. I walked out of the bedroom and passed you, still asleep on the couch.
I went outside in only a t-shirt and briefs. It was warm for the morning, and the sun peaked pink through clouds. I turned the combination and unlocked the back of the U-Haul. The door slammed upward and the sides of the truck shook. The boxes were lined the way we left them: clothing on top, household items stacked somewhere in the middle, books on the bottom. I started making a path towards the back, throwing boxes out of the opening. Forks and spoons chimed against each other. Plates shattered and I didn’t care. The books were the heaviest, but I pushed out the boxes onto the ground. I grunted and exhaled hard. Sweat formed on my faced. Old, tattered paperbacks spilled out onto the driveway, some tumbling under the U-Haul. It was in the corner, in the box labeled “Other.” I knew exactly where I put it.
I heard the front door open.
“John?” Tammy must have heard me open the U-Haul. Or the plates break.
I opened the box, breaking off some cardboard that ripped with the duct tape. Wrapped in a tattered kitchen towel, under old notebooks, forgotten holiday cards, and more kitchen supplies—a can opener, a whisk, a rolling pin—was the picture, a five by seven in a frame too large. Your favorite. I caught my breath. A drop of sweat fell on the glass.
We were sitting in the backyard, our backs to the sliding glass door. The sun in our eyes revealed your crow’s feet, expanding into your temples like branches. Your arm around my back, your hand cupping my shoulder, and Savannah standing in front of us to our right, just tall enough to be level with the tops of our heads. Mid-laugh, your dimples exposed, and Savannah gripping a bundle of stems that led to the purple flowers, the buds out of focus. Tammy, behind the camera, telling Savannah to show her the flowers. We never told her that these were actually weeds. My head downward and into your chest, my jaw pressed against your peck, eyes towards the lens, smiling the way I used to.
Tammy stepped into the U-Haul and the floor bounced, jolting me back to where I was. I was kneeling, holding this picture with my knees hard against the metal floor and my neck curved downward. Gravity gave me no choice.
“John, what are you doing?” Tammy was behind me, her voice soft. Before she touched my shoulder, I stood. I pushed myself up using the boxes that were spilled on their side and walked out of the U-Haul without making eye contact with Tammy, the picture in my hand.
I opened the front door, and you were standing near the couch in only your boxers.
“What’s going on?” you asked. You wiped your eyes and squinted at the sunlight coming through the front door.
We were close, a foot or two apart. I held out the picture, and I heard myself breathing.
You looked down, and then back at me. Your forehead creased and your head shook. “Why would you—ˮ
“I said look!” I threw the picture. The glass shattered on the floor and cracked into small pieces, sharp teeth at our feet. With tears on my cheeks, I pushed you. We looked at each other for a moment until you grabbed my wrists and started to say something.
I pushed harder. “Look!”
“John, stop it.” Tammy was behind me, grabbing my shoulders, gripping her fingers into my skin. I pushed harder and screamed louder.
“Look at it, goddamnit!” I pounded your chest with my fists. “Look!”