Julian drove up to spend New Year’s Eve with her, but they went to bed before midnight, and were it not for the fireworks outside her bedroom window, she wouldn’t have known what day it was. She heard a distant hooting, like owls celebrating some nefarious feast, and she lay in bed as one o’clock passed, and then it was two and she was still sleepless. She could see the tropical fish swimming in circles in their tank, casting their aqua glow. “Those things never die,” she told Julian. “I neglected them in high school and my parents still neglect them. I think they’re essentially unkillable.” She could hear the rain falling on the roof, tapping its relentless code. “Look at you,” she said. “Your feet stick out.”
“I’m too big for the bed,” Julian admitted.
Her mother was down the hall, recovering from the chemotherapy; a new round would begin tomorrow. Her father and sister were focused on the details, which was a way to occupy themselves, she understood, but she didn’t want to discuss the details. She just wanted them to admit how frightened they were, but it seemed they weren’t able to. And maybe she wasn’t, either. Last night, she’d stood silently with Olivia in the kitchen, and then she blurted out, “I love you,” and Olivia blurted it back. A discomfort settled between them, a shame almost. What freighted words those were, reserved for so few people sometimes it seemed they were never to be used at all. She recalled being a child, four, five, six when she said those words to her teachers and classmates, when it seemed there wasn’t anyone she didn’t love. Then a hardening set in, and you didn’t love anyone any longer, or at least you didn’t say you did, so that now she couldn’t remember the last time she’d said those words to anyone besides Julian, when there were other people she loved, her family, certainly.
She nudged Julian out of bed and they shambled in their pajamas through the house. She felt desperate for him to know her better, felt a conviction that despite having been with her for three years, he didn’t apprehend her at all. From her parents’ bedroom came the sinister whirr of the white-noise machine. She felt somnolent, guiding Julian through a haze from which she feared she would never emerge.