May Rheston was a door slammer, a quick forgiver, a lover. She was a caregiver, an insomniac (sporadically). May was an incense burner, the type of person full of unremitting care alongside a tendency toward self-neglect. She was a happily tanned sun worshipper in the summer and a cooped-up homebody during our snowy Colorado winters. May was a brown-eyed brunette deep thinker with a penchant for making a home anywhere she lived. She was the first to misplace an item in our fridge, no matter how little else was in it. Keeping track of her keys used to be a battle, too, until we installed a set of small hooks just inside the front door. I fell in love with May long before I tried to understand her. Though she tried to understand me first, before she loved me.
May wore jeans and faded tees when we met in college, but her corporate job soon transformed her closet from cotton to creased trousers. She was the type to sit in the front row; she was a participator, a hand raiser. She was the first person to say, “I will!” when someone asked something of an entire room, or offer encouraging words when she saw someone with self-doubt. She could be so willing to help — the first to believe in the inherent good of others — and yet come home from it all believing nothing of herself. In general, May’s thing was a thing of highs and the lows that follow them.
Her memory was like the northern lights in the way it cast a glow over a cold surface, unpredictable yet beautifully tinted. She called her baristas by name and remembered my freshman year roommate. She shared her memories with me, like the way her mother gave her everything in bowls because they had no cups or plates. Everything else had been broken over the years. They ate bacon out of bowls; they ate potatoes out of bowls. Her mother drank her wine out of a bowl. Growing up, their round kitchen table had been cluttered with a happenstance collection of bowls. Sometimes she parroted her mother’s sayings, things along the lines of, “It’s like baby-proofing, glasses and plates shatter at the tip of a hat.” And they were broken, themselves, too. May remembered all this after a fight about God knows what; she had ended up slamming one of our round, white dishes into the sink, breaking it into large chunks of ceramic. I think it felt good to break something of value out of spite. We were at an age where we were expected to buy nice things for ourselves, to take care of them, to stop drinking wine out of Solo cups.
Many mornings began with May asking me, “What day is it?” in the interim haze immediately after the alarm was silenced. The night made our studio apartment crisp and I reached to turn on the furnace below the window. The hissing air always masked the subtler sounds — like the hum of her breath, pedestrians outside — and took a few moments to warm. Snooze lasted for 10 minutes. Getting up at the first alarm would have meant time to make coffee, I would think to myself. She began to squirm once I broke skin contact.
“Wednesday,” I said.
She was not yet fully conscious, sleep still in her eyes. Her short brown hair tousled on the pillow. She pawed at my side, fingers snaking slightly around my torso in an instinctive longing, one foot still in the dream world. The light was trickling into the bedroom through taupe sheets repurposed as curtains, the resulting light golden yet blanched from the winter sky. The morning traffic on 33rd, two stories below, pierced the furnace humming and a breeze rocked the tree outside.
It was like this most mornings: a well-intentioned alarm postponed, me tracing May’s features, a quick shower. The wooden floors would feel icy. May would slip on a corporate blouse. We would each toss something in our bags that would pass as breakfast. These patterns seeped into our apartment and provided a rhythm to the world outside, about to begin, on the brink of our consciousness as if it were a shadow on the present.
The snoozed alarm severed the silence and my fumbling hands found the button in the cool morning. I rose to get dressed, stepping over heaps of our discarded clothes mingled and indiscernible in cleanliness. Her black lace was thrown on top of my college sweatpants in the general direction of where the hamper sat, overflowing with cotton and denim. I picked out the least wrinkled button-up from my closet.
“How did you sleep?” May asked me as she sniffed a pair of business khakis found alongside the floor-borne mattress.
“Nightmares,” I said. “You?”
She was fitting herself into the rest of her clothes and scurrying towards the bathroom. “I slept all right.” Asking about sleep had become a soft-intended tradition. My torments had their place in conversations at one time, when I would confess the chasing of murderers or falling out of a plane until I suffered the sudden snapping sensation of waking one’s self from the depths of imagination. Those stressors no longer had a space in our small bedroom. For weeks, May had been littering our single nightstand with twisted plastic ZzzQuil packets and melatonin. Last night, she had washed down the over-the-counters with a glass of red — one of the few nights I had not woken throughout the night to the rustling impatience of her insomnia. Over time, the conversation of sleep had become a comfortable ritual, as if it were a sign of affection to ask without really answering.
The following morning resembled any other: I hit snooze once or twice, and we hurried the morning routine to make it out on time. I could smell our warmed bedding on my skin, our sleeping body smell — a smell that contradicted the high-speed rush of getting out the door. I tried to begin that day with more responsible decisions, like tea and yogurt and getting to the office a little early. It didn’t work out. She was running to get ready; I was wishing we had disposable spoons and grabbed a bagel instead.
We shoved our feet into shoes by the front door, keys in hand. May’s purse was prepared (finding her bus pass took an extra moment). Then she asked me, “How would you describe the taste of pancakes to someone who has never eaten pancakes?”
I looked at her and took my best guess, checking my phone for the time. “Warm, fluffy goodness. Sweeter and lighter than bread,” I said, flashing a quick smile and touching the middle of her back. “Ready?” She was checking her purse to make sure everything was in place.
“We never make pancakes anymore.” Her eyelashes fluttered, looking down into the brown leather. I could feel her tenseness; it was a mounting anxiety, a growing fissure that pitted us against each other as negativity seeped ink-like into her thoughts. Her confidence seeped away as the week progressed towards her Friday morning appointment.
I watched her fingers touch everything in her purse to verify that they were there, that they would be with her once we locked the door behind us. She fidgeted with her bracelet and held her bus pass for good measure.
“What time is it?” she asked. “I might change into the other skirt and —.”
“May, we don’t have time.”
“You can go ahead, I’ll just —.”
“May, you look great. I’m not leaving without you.” She looked at me, our bodies on the brink of the day, her energy fluttering around us. “And as for the pancakes: How about this weekend?” I suggested. “Or even breakfast for dinner?” I was caught between reassuring her that it hasn’t actually been that long since we had pancakes and hurrying to get out the door so she wouldn’t feel the stress of being late to her job.
She was just about to exit the apartment before she ducked into a closet and grabbed a scarf in a last-minute decision. I had one hand on the knob as she came toward the doorframe. A shadow tempered with the ordinary, with what I imagined most people experienced before beginning their morning commutes. Then I would remember that we were most people, and I reassured her as best I could. Sometimes, it was anything to keep her functional.
May had chosen to take medication during a time when she was perpetually down. She had been focusing on the bad parts of every day; she had been making snide comments about herself, her looks, her smallest decisions like what she ate or wore. It had been a glacial shift, one that had a slow-moving, charted course. I would come home from an evening visiting my parents to find her uncannily quiet, riveted with a somber tone in the way she poured her tea or did her hair. I caressed her while fearing I might break something fragile. It had been her decision to seek out a therapist. After a few sessions, May had come home with the possibility of a referral to a psychiatrist. A prescription wasn’t the only option, but it was an option. She had come home later and set the orange bottle on the kitchen countertop with a genuine smile: a solution.
I began typing her symptoms into search engines, going dizzy with what I found. The Internet was a mess, scattered helplessly between forums and published findings. The open forums felt psychotic, an endless supply of exceptions and hopelessness and contradictions. I would gravitate toward the sponsored publications, the studies crafted by Ph.D.s with stable lives who studied the unstable, the wayward. Over time I became fluent in the terminology: systematic investigations, symptomatology, depressive disorders, patients. Patients compared against “normals”; dated, cited. There were symptom clusters and pharmacotherapies, drug trials and abbreviations and percentages. Side effects like sexual dysfunction and loss of appetite were tossed at the end of a finding, like punctuating a sentence, legitimizing a language with parameters. It was a world of its own, its binary black-and-white pixels staring back at me as if it could answer everything, and answered nothing at all.
I wanted answers as a caregiver of May’s heart. I wanted to know when one should and could call it “enough,” even though I felt like a childish monstrosity wanting to throw a temper tantrum and scream, What about me and mine?
For about two months, May followed the directions given to her in hopes that things would get better: one pill, every morning. Her psychiatrist had told her that there would be a trial period of about a month, at which point she could change the dose or choose a new medication. I watched the energy slip away from her. Her appetite was at a standstill. We began picking our meals based upon any craving she might be having, just so she would eat. Slowly, she became the glacier. She became an insomniac, she became something other than herself.
“Bacon and eggs?” I had offered one night. “We’re out of pancake mix, but you’re always craving breakfast.” She looked at me. A pressure behind her eyes from lack of sleep made something in myself ache.
“I’m not hungry,” May said.
“You’ve got to eat,” I said, making another conversation less of a negotiation, playing the role of reason. I came up behind her, kissed her neck and snuggled my chin onto her right shoulder. “I’ll start cooking, if you pick us something to watch? How about a comedy?”
“That sounds great,” she said.
I walked into the kitchen and pulled supplies out of the fridge. “Hell, I’ll even watch a chick flick,” I called toward the living room over my shoulder. The dishes were stacked high in the sink after days of neglect; I would have to start there. I switched on the hot water and poured the blue, liquid soap into a sponge. I quickly decided to focus only on the dishes and pans we might need that night.
“How would you like your eggs, my love?” I called out of the kitchen, padding my hands onto one of our dirty dishrags.
“Scrambled!” Her voice returned. I set aside our last three pieces of bread for toast and lined one pan with four strips of raw pork. The cupboard was almost empty with many of our dishes still piled in the sink, so I set to washing a couple of plates and some silverware. I cracked our eggs directly into the other pan, scrambling them with a fork directly over the stovetop. Any potential for a fluffy, golden outcome seemed stolen from the moment I cracked each porcelain exterior. The heat turned the liquid, transparent contents into yellowed, foam-like texture. I sprinkled in some salt and pepper, humming with a pleasant feeling of accomplishment and excitement. My hunger for the food grew as I prepared it; the pops of the toaster whetted my appetite.
By the time I plated up our meal and walked proudly into the living room, I found May with a movie triggered and paused on the flat screen, her body cradled on the floor next to the couch, and her face in her hands.
“May, honey,” I said as I set down the plates on the coffee table.
“I’m sorry — I just —,” she began.
“What’s wrong?” I crouched down, confused.
“You try so hard —.” The words seemed to bring even more tears from the corners of her eyes, the beginnings of sobbing apparent. “And I’m still not —,” she said as she clenched her hands onto the sides of her head.
“It’s okay,” I said as I placed my hand on her forehead, helpless. “May, it’s going to be okay.”
“That must be so easy for you to say,” she uttered.
I felt my hands drift from her hairline.
“I hear you in there, practically singing, and I’m in here like — like this.” Her voice reaches a bit higher, tears clearing up as she becomes slightly more lucid. She sniffs after the thought is out. It is as if I could hear the scrambled eggs flattening, the toast losing its warmth; it is as if one could experience hope seeping through cracks, out through our poorly insulated windows or the gaps in the cheap bathroom tiles. My chest deflates and I lean back slightly, looking into the pain in her beautiful face. I look into the face of a sickness, the face of a flu — or the face of a cancer, the face of a hurricane named after a person. I debated deeply whether I should stroke her mahogany hair, or offer her a bite of evening breakfast, and I feel stricken over scrambling the eggs directly in the pan in a potential exchange of overall quality. We sit on the floor as I love her, as she debates with herself, as we quiet down with breakfast in the background.
Thursday evenings I often returned from work to find May had come home early, her weekly anxiety at its peak. It was cyclical since her therapy sessions were Friday morning. She would be picking at her nail beds at the kitchen table or watching television on her laptop, sometimes with soup on the stove or takeout menus set out. I kissed her on her forehead and some warmth mingled together. I would try to make her laugh and bring light to our situation, a gentle push against lingering darkness.
“Is something going on in that twisted head of yours?” I cast out our running joke with a hug, yanking her gaze into the present after having been fixed on some unreal horizon a moment earlier. She looked to me and let out a laugh, and she told me that she loved me.
“If I can’t get rid of this headache tonight, I’m not sure I can make my appointment tomorrow. Plus, I’ve made all of them so far,” May said. “Haven’t missed a single one yet.” I sat down on our other chair, scooting close enough so I can brush a strand of her hair out of her eyes.
“You’re rationalizing again,” I told her. Then I ask her how the last appointment went, so she can remember the positive for herself.
“All I know is, those ink blots looked fucking pissed,” she joked. We both laughed.
“C’mon May,” I said. “Remember what you said when you came home last time?”
“Yeah,” she said. “It was relieving, it was.”
“You’ve got this,” I reassured her and she nodded. “I’ll be home waiting for you when you’re done. I can pick up pancake mix on the way home.”
“And orange juice?” she asked. “Definitely craving me some orange juice.” She smiled.
“Then let’s do it,” I said.
From a used psychology textbook, I had cut out a page and taped it to the bathroom mirror. It wrinkled over time from the dampness, from our hot showers, but I eventually memorized it over teeth brushings. It was the most reassuring quip I had found: “The capacity to experience positive emotions may be a fundamental human strength central to human flourishing.” I would recite this as if it were a mantra, a life lesson, a prayer. I had imagined that she could do the same, reading it to herself:
The capacity to experience positive emotions may be a fundamental human strength central to human flourishing.
I became transfixed on the diction. “Capacity.” Do I have any control over capacity? It felt like the size of something indiscernible, over which I had no control. Was it like inheriting a bucket instead of a bathtub, the volume of potential being a part of who we are? Over time, it became a question and a seeded doubt, and the egg shells under the soles of my feet felt permanent. A growing gray area had begun looming in the space between May and I. I began wondering if my caregiving was synonymous with her caretaking.
Friday mornings there was no snooze. May shifted out of bed and turned on the heat. She woke to another rhythm, anticipating her morning alarm and the cold in a way she seemed to embrace. This morning painted her in a different light: Her hair wasn’t yet brushed, but her eyes were natural, calling out to me — or some reassurance.
“Good morning,” I called out to her before I left the warmth of our bed. She was flurrying between kitchen, bathroom and wardrobe.
“Good morning,” she returned.
We were both getting ready for the day. We were each tossing fruit or bread in our bags for breakfast. We each brushed our teeth, dressed our bodies and kissed each other to begin the day. The radiator breathed out air that wasn’t warm enough and the tree outside moved in the morning wind.
Then we were ready, positioned by the door. She had confirmed for herself she had everything she needed.
“Hey,” she said. She looks at me, still.
“Hey,” I said.
“Let’s start with something positive today, shall we?” She smiled and took in a deep breath. With the radiator turned off, I could hear the pattering of outside life and traffic distinctly. Her effort was labor intensive, and I hugged her deeply, holding her an extra beat.
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s. Meet you back here later?”
She said yes and gave her a hug. “We made this place, and we’ll be back tonight,” I said. “Breakfast for dinner.”
“Breakfast for dinner.”
We walked out of the apartment complex. At our block’s corner we said goodbye, and I waited for the 19 bus. May crossed the busy intersection, glancing back once for a quick wave and a playfully blown kiss. As she walked, I watched her brown hair catch in the wind; I imagined the warmth of the white woven scarf she had grabbed again at the last minute; I admired her brisk walk and the way she held her focus ahead of her instead of on the ground in front of her step. More and more people began intercepting my view of her as she went further away. Other brunettes, other scarves, other people filled the distance that separated us until I could no longer distinguish her from the masses.