Meghan Dairaghi is an MFA student at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her work has previously appeared in Alien Magazine, Belle Ombre, Tiny Spoon, and Mochila Review.
The Boyfriend Story
On our first date, my boyfriend says he only has a few months to live. I laugh. I think it’s a joke. I think I laugh too loud because people stare, and this is understood to be a nice restaurant. We sit on the patio with strings of pearly lights above us. My sherry is diamonds under it. I wanted to order something that sounded like it would be ordered in a place like this. Besides, my boyfriend says he will pay, and I don’t want him to think I’m greedy, but I also want to try sherry.
“I’m serious,” he says. “I understand if you don’t want to get involved with me.”
My boyfriend wears a button-up that I’ve only seen men wear on job interviews. Usually, the boys I date wear T-shirts. I see where a comb raked even lines through my boyfriend’s slicked back hair. It looks like a cornfield.
“Look,” I say, “I think you’re attractive, and this date’s gone good. You don’t have to lie to get me in bed with you.” I think he is too young to die because he looks about my age.
“I’m not lying. My doctor said I’m lucky if I make it to Christmas.”
It is June. The air drips with humidity. I know I am sweating bad because of it, and because I am nervous. He is too. I see wet patches under his armpits. This doesn’t make me like him less.
“You don’t look sick,” I say. “You look healthy to me.”
There’s a tremble in his jaw that happens sometimes. He twitches like one of Dad’s horses when a fly lands on its skin. If my boyfriend didn’t tell me he was sick, I wouldn’t have noticed. It would just look like he is nervous on a first date.
He shrugs. “Some days are better than others.”
“What do you have?”
“Does it matter?”
I guess it doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t matter when he takes me to his place. He is good in bed, and I tell him so.
“Thank you,” he says, like he wasn’t expecting that. I think it’s cute and maybe a little sad.
“So, if we do this, how will it work?” I ask. “How do know when…it’s the end?”
He pulls me against his slick chest and squeezes hard. “You’ll know,” he says. “You’ll feel it.”
Before I introduce my boyfriend to my family, I tell them not to ask any rude questions. They are not a polite bunch. Growing up, Dad said Ma’s teeth fell out because she says so many rotten things. That’s how he always scared me and my sister into being nice. I think my boyfriend will feel better knowing my family is also not whole when he sees Ma’s mouth. Those five dark specs along her gums, black as tar.
“This is my boyfriend,” I say to them. “We’ve been dating for two weeks.”
My dad is not a tall man. He looks bigger though because he works with his hands, and his muscles are his tools. When he stands from the kitchen table, I notice dirt under his fingernails. My boyfriend shakes his hand all the same.
“It’s nice to meet you, sir,” my boyfriend says.
“I hear you’re dying,” Dad says.
My boyfriend just smiles. It makes me think people ask him this all the time. “You hear right, sir.”
“You get a second opinion?” Ma asks. Her hair is up. She only wears her hair up for guests. It is frizzy around her head.
I bet she is thinking about how much money it costs to be sick. When we were little, Ma used plants or oils that smelled like sleep on our scratchy or burning skin. She said the earth will heal you if you let it.
“Yes ma’am. I’ve been to many doctors.” I know my boyfriend is thinking about IVs and pills that come in paper cups.
Ma grunts. “That’s too bad.” Her eyes are shiny like a cracked egg.
Sister slouches in her chair. Her dark hair covers her face. “Then why date anyone now?” she asks.
I did not want it go like this. I look to my boyfriend to say sorry, and he puts his arm around my shoulders.
“I figure I might as well die a happy man,” my boyfriend says.
Dad crosses his arms and wrinkles his nose.
Sister sticks out her lips like a duck. “Yeah, but it won’t be happy for everyone else when you kick the bucket.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I tell her. “It’s rude.”
Ma fans herself with a magazine. The pages curve under her fingers. “It’s a fair point.”
It is the middle of the day, and the sun bakes the kitchen. Dad doesn’t believe in AC, so the window is open. The family dog drools a puddle by my sister’s feet. Its panting is loud and wet. It’s an old dog, and it’s gone blind with milky eyes.
“Do you want anything to drink?” I ask my boyfriend since nobody else has asked. I ask loudly because I want my family to know they are not being welcoming.
He nods. “I’d love some tea if you’ve got it.”
“What do you do for work?” Dad asks. He is still standing because my boyfriend is also standing.
“I’m a cashier. I work at the market.”
“Which market?” Ma asks. “I hear the one downtown carries bad food. Our neighbor got sick off their meat.”
“It’s not the one downtown, ma’am.”
Dad says, “I know someone who’s hiring. You do yard work? You can make good money, put some hair on your chest.”
“He’s not looking for another job,” I say. I do not tell Dad my boyfriend already has hair on his chest.
Sister is eyelevel with the table. She keeps sliding. “Why do you work anyway if you know you’re going to die?”
The family dog wobbles to its water bowl and laps. The sound is loud in the stiffness of the kitchen.
“Well,” my boyfriend says, looking around the room, “We’ll all die someday.”
That shuts Sister up. I am glad he said it.
I hand my boyfriend his drink. “Want to go downstairs?”
“Leave the door open,” Dad calls after us. “And think about that job offer, boy. Get back to me.”
I close the door loudly.
I have been thinking of all the other things that can kill my boyfriend before whatever is inside of him does it first. I think about an armed robber at his cash register. I think about a freak accident involving lighting or geese or a loose screw. It makes me question the way I’ll die, when I’ll die, but it is a luxury to have answers to those questions.
Death makes us only see the best in people. I want my family to remember me, dirt and all, and not pretend like I was any more than I was.
When he sleeps at night, I put my finger under my boyfriend’s nose. He breathes quietly, and I can’t tell sometimes. He usually catches me doing it.
“I’m alive,” he always says. “I told you, you’ll sense when it’s time.”
I worry I won’t. My boyfriend says that when two people love each other, they have a special connection that way. I try to love him extra hard because I want to have extra sense. I will never forgive myself if I can’t feel it because that means I don’t love him the way he thinks I do.
My friend asks me if I think my boyfriend will propose before he dies. My pretty friend is especially excited about this question.
“I’ll be in the wedding, right?” she asks me.
“Of course you will, but that won’t be anytime soon.”
Pretty Friend is married, and she has two babies. One of the babies is bouncing on her lap now. Baby’s gums are wet on Pretty Friend’s finger as he sucks it.
“Why not soon? Don’t you love him?” Pretty Friend asks.
“Yes,” I say, “Very much.”
“Then you should get married.”
“I don’t know if he’ll propose.”
Pretty Friend rolls her eyes. “He will. You two are meant for each other like that.” She adjusts Baby by pulling him up under the armpits. Though, she has never met my boyfriend.
I think death is a love accelerator.
“I can’t believe you haven’t talked about it,” Pretty Friend says.
“Never the right time,” I say because I don’t know why we haven’t either. I feel bad for never even thinking of it. Maybe my boyfriend thinks about it. That makes me feel worse.
“You could propose to him,” Pretty Friend says. “He might be waiting for you to do it.”
Pretty Friend thinks of me the same way she thinks of herself, but I do not have the same courage as Pretty Friend.
“Maybe,” I say. I cannot afford a ring, but Pretty Friend will not understand this, so I think of an excuse. “Where would I even get a ring?”
“The pawn shop. My uncle owns the place.”
Baby fusses, but Pretty Friend sticks her finger back into his mouth, and he stops. I hope she doesn’t ask me about kids because then I will look even more foolish.
“You make it sound so obvious,” I say.
Pretty Friend shrugs. “It’s obvious to me. That’s what people do when they’re in love.”
I do not mention that her husband is gone most of the time, but I think this is true enough. Maybe love changes after people get married.
“Do you ever feel your husband?” I ask.
Pretty Friend looks at me strange. “Huh? You mean if we still have sex?”
“No. I mean, when he’s not here, would you sense if something bad happened to him?”
Baby babbles and grabs Pretty Friend’s hand with his fat fists. Pretty friend doesn’t really know how to answer me.
When I go to my boyfriend’s house that night, I ask him to marry me. I get down on one knee, with no ring, and I ask him to be my husband. We are outside, and the cicadas are screeching. My boyfriend has a plate of grilled corn in his hand. He looks amused at the sight of me down on one knee in the dirt.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
He laughs. “Stand up.” He takes my hand and helps me to my feet. “I love you so much, but this isn’t the right time.”
“Don’t you want to marry me?”
“I love you,” he says again. “I love spending my days with you. You make everything feel better.”
He speaks nice to me to make the rejection feel light. I have to search for it in his words. I think he does it to protect me, but it just hurts worse.
“But you don’t want to get married.”
“Why are you proposing?” he asks.
I bite my lip. “Never mind. I’m not proposing anymore.”
“Don’t do something just because you feel like you have to,” he says. “Don’t do it just because I’m dying.”
I start crying. I think it hits me all at once that my boyfriend is dying, and one day I will be here without him. I cannot stop.
My boyfriend hugs me. The plate of corn drops, but we leave it on the ground. His arms are strong around my back, and I think how unfair it is that someone that strong can be so sick. I think if I were the one dying, it would seem more fair.
“Maybe the doctors are wrong,” I say. “Maybe you have more time.”
He looks at me and shakes his head. “Let’s not lie to ourselves.”
I want to believe all this talk of presence and feeling and the afterlife, but I have never felt these things before. When he leaves, it scares me that I will never feel him again.
One night Sister walks into my room. She does not look me in the eyes.
“I was thinking about your boyfriend,” she says.
It is late. I hear Dad’s snores through the walls. Outside the sky is black, and there are endless stars.
“Okay,” I say. “What are you thinking?”
Sister leans against my wall. “I’m worried.” Sister’s voice is so small, it is hard to hear her. Her tongue wets her lips.
“You’re worried,” I repeat.
“You know he’s going to die soon.”
I will not lie and say this doesn’t worry me too. Of course it does.
“Yeah,” I say. “He will.”
“You don’t have to have a boyfriend. You can break up with him.”
Sister has never had a boyfriend, so she doesn’t understand. She is too young to know what that kind of relationship is like, but she is not too young to know what fear is. I know she is just trying to help me that only way she knows how.
“I love him,” I tell her.
“That’s why you’re going to be so sad.”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m already sad.”
Sister has not done this since she was little, but she climbs into my bed. She sits there with the covers around her chin. My bed is not that big, but I let her stay because I know she’s scared for me. I am scared too.
We do not say I love you to each other because we both already know that.
Lately, I have been thinking about when things will happen for the last time, but I don’t want to think too hard about it because it will ruin the moment.
My boyfriend and I are in my basement watching a movie. My boyfriend is drinking beer, and his mouth is sour when I kiss him. I’m not really sure what we’re watching. My boyfriend said it’s his favorite movie, something with superheroes and bad guys. I think it’s boring, but I won’t say anything because he likes it. He lets me watch with my legs on his lap.
“You’ll like this part,” he keeps saying. “Watch this.”
And then there will be bad visual effects, like a smoke bomb or an explosion of light that makes the screen go white.
“Wow,” I keep saying. “That’s cool.”
I don’t think he hears me. He is too involved in the movie. When he leans forward with excitement, I think he looks boyish. I wonder if he was like this as a child too. I bet he was. I wish I knew him when he wasn’t sick, but then I wouldn’t know the same person.
“You like it so far?”
“Yeah,” I say. The beer helps.
“Okay, so pay attention to this part,” he says, pointing to the screen. The neon of the TV makes his beer can turn blue. “You’ll want to remember this.”
I am looking at him because I do want to remember this.
I hear my family upstairs. There is Ma in the kitchen, fiddling with the stove. I hear the ticks of gas sputter to life. Dad’s boots are hard against the wood floor. Sister is whining. I hear echoes of her nasal voice. Ma snips to be quiet. This riles the family dog who barks, and Ma snips louder. I know that one day when my boyfriend is not here to share bad movies with me, they will be, and my family will be the kind of lovely that people are to each other when they know someone’s in pain. I won’t think they’re so bad.
It is early August. I know what I am giving my boyfriend for Christmas already. It’s another button-up shirt because I know he likes those, and I like the way he looks in them. Yes, I know it is far away, but I am used to preparing by now.
One night when I close my eyes in bed with him lying next to me, I sense his body. We sleep together with our limbs tangled like a bird’s nest. This is the first time I’ve seen my boyfriend with my eyes closed. I am getting better at understanding what I can’t explain. Or at least accepting it.
I wake in the middle of the night with a feeling in my chest like hatching eggs, like pecking and clawing. I have never felt this way before. I try to find myself in the dark because now that my eyes are open, it is harder to see. When I whisper my boyfriend’s name, he does not answer. There is no warmth under his nose where my finger rests. I close my eyes. Find him. Take his cold hand, hold it close.
The Boyfriend Story
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