By Callista Pacheco
Every weeknight winds down this way. We spin in circles around each other in our too-small kitchen, making dinner while we talk about our day. There’s music playing softly, whatever new album all our friends are listening to, and a basketball game is on in the other room. The fluorescent bulbs in the kitchen give me a headache, so we exchange it for a lamp on the floor and some candles. We split a bottle of red wine while we work, me at the stove and you by the sink. We’ve spent the past half hour debating the difference between a hobby and a habit. “Maybe it’s intention,” you say from behind me, “whether you like it or not.”
“I don’t think so,” I respond, carefully stirring the rice, “You can enjoy a habit just as much as a hobby. Could it be how long you do it? Do habits take longer to form than hobbies?”
You turn off the sink. After wiping your hands on a dish towel, you pull out your phone to look it up. “It says on Google that it takes six weeks to form a hobby, and sixty-six days to form a habit.”
“So they do take longer! I knew I was onto something.” I turn back to the stove, mulling this over. After a beat, I ask “Do you think kissing counts as a hobby?”
I can hear the smile in your voice as you reply, “You’ve been kissing me for a lot longer than six weeks, darling. We’re well past it being a hobby now.”
“Would you say I’m an expert at it?” I tease.
“A professional! The only one qualified for the job.” It makes me laugh, and just like that we’ve abandoned our respective posts. We meet in the center of the kitchen for a long hug. You press a kiss to my forehead, and let your lips linger there for another moment. I love it when we can be like this. Held tight in this dimly-lit room, I forget all the times when we can’t be.
“Actually, I think it must be about how easily you can stop,” you say, breaking my reverie. “Think about it like this: kissing you is a hobby of mine because, if I had to, I could stop doing it for a while. But loving you is a habit. It’d take a lot more work to stop doing that.”
I think about this for a second, before our conversation is interrupted by the fire alarm. I scream and it makes you laugh. I rush to take the pan off the burner while you start opening the windows. The last of the August sunlight slides sweetly into the room. The wind presses its hand to the back of my neck, reminding me that autumn will be here any day now. I scrape the burnt rice from the bottom of the pan and into the trash.
“So much for our stir-fry,” you call from the living room, waving a dish towel in front of the fire alarm to fan away the smoke.
“It’s all right,” I shout back, straining to be heard over the alarm, “We bought a ton of rice. I’ll start boiling some more. No more distracting me while I’m cooking.”
I’m chastising you, but it’s playful. The alarm finally stops, so I reach into the brown paper bag on the counter and pull out the rest of the rice. I remember the car ride to the grocery store earlier, the sound of the empty bottles clinking together beneath the passenger seat. I hoped that at least one of them was from yesterday, that you didn’t drink both after work today. You smelled like Listerine when you got home. I didn’t ask, and you offered no explanation. Another circle we spin in.
“Back to work now, huh?” You glance over my shoulder at the water that’s waiting to boil on the stove. “Do you mind if I catch a few minutes of the game? It’ll be a bit before we’re rolling again.”
“Go ahead. I won’t need you in here to help for another thirty minutes anyway.” Before you leave, you grab another cup from the cabinet and fill it with ice. You carry it with you to the living room. Who puts ice in red wine? I wonder mutely. I move over to the counter, checking that the tofu is thawed. I begin cutting and washing the broccoli. I hear a cork pop in the other room. It’s quickly become one of my least favorite sounds. What once stood for celebration has long since hardened into an aching pit in my stomach. It means I have to watch the level of the liquid in the bottle, that I will feel an overwhelming pressure to drink more so that there’s less available for you. I’ll wake up tomorrow with a headache and go to class with a stomach ache. I do it so you’ll still kiss me on the forehead. I do it out of habit.
Eventually, you saunter back into the kitchen. I smile to see you. “How’s the game going?”
“We’re losing,” you mutter.
You grab a mixing bowl from the pile of clean dishes next to the sink. You are about to prepare the salad you intended to start earlier. From the corner of my eye, I see you reach for the bag of croutons first. You rip the top off, open the resealable bag, and begin dumping the croutons into the mixing bowl.
“Who the hell puts croutons in their salad first,” I question, stifling a laugh.
Before I’ve had time to finish giggling, I watch you pick a candle up off the counter. My mouth freezes, and I cower as the candle whizzes past my head and crashes into the wall beside me. The flame blows out during the fall and the glass shatters, getting sealed to the floor in many places by melted wax. I know I’ll have to clean that later.
“You are so fucking annoying, you know that?” you sneer. I say nothing. “You always have something to say about everything I do, like you’re so much smarter than me. Go wait out there. I’m not doing this with you breathing down my neck the whole time.”
I leave the room swiftly and quietly. I know there isn’t anything, not even a mumbled apology, that will fix this. I just have to wait out the storm. Tonight could be one of those lucky nights where you admit that you overreacted, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders and telling me you’re sorry. I try not to hope for those nights, as they are so rare, but the part of me that craves the return of your warmth can’t be fought so easily. Another habit.
Walking into the living room, I notice the source of the popped cork. You weren’t out here with another bottle of red wine as I’d suspected; this time it was whiskey. I think back to the ice in the glass and realize my mistake. I should have known better, should have been paying closer attention. You have been to rehab twice now. I should know how to take care of you. I’m angry with myself, but none of it matters now.
Seeking comfort, I squeeze myself into the corner between the couch and the wall. This is where I always go after your explosions, somewhere small and confined. It’s the fastest way to calm myself down. With my eyes closed tight, it can almost feel like a hug. I know that being here is risky. When you find me in my corners, it makes you act even more cruel. You look like a fucking little kid, I remember you yelling at me. You’re completely pathetic. How do you expect me to take you seriously? I take the risk. What other choice do I have?
My mind wanders as I sit here, jammed against the back of the couch. I’m thinking of soft spots – the one I have for you in particular. Two years ago, when we first met, the soft spot started in innocence, like the unfinished crown of a baby’s head. I let myself become the porcelain skull, trusting you to be the protective hands beneath it. The very same soft spot has now become more like a bruise on a peach, overripe to the point of rot. Your thumb could easily slip inside of it, and it often does. It smells sickeningly sweet, but the flies it attracts aren’t fooled; they know that whatever lies beneath the skin is already decomposing.
I hear the sound of you finishing up dinner in the kitchen. I hear you take out a plate and serve yourself food. I listen as you chew each bite, and go back for seconds. I hear the plate clatter into the sink when you’re done. I stay behind the couch. I hear a continuous scraping, followed by more dishes being tossed into the sink. You turn the light off in the kitchen and walk right into the bedroom, closing the door behind you.
I don’t move until I hear snoring. Your ability to pass out in minutes has always astounded me. I walk into the kitchen, planning to finally eat, when I see that everything’s been put away. It’s unlike you to pick up after yourself. I open the fridge, searching for the leftovers, and I can’t find anything. There’s no way you could have eaten everything yourself. I remember the scraping from earlier, and hold my breath as I carefully step over the broken candle and make my way to the trash. Sure enough, when I look inside, I can see that you’ve thrown away everything you didn’t eat. I bite back tears. Maybe you forgot I was here, I think, struggling to convince myself that it’s true. This might not have been as malicious as it seems. But there’s no number of circles I can walk myself in to make this feel any different. You were so angry that I criticized the way you were cooking that you didn’t want me to have anything to eat. It doesn’t matter for tonight. I can just make myself a sandwich, and we can talk about it tomorrow. You’ll know what to say to make this go down easier. You always do.
After I’ve eaten, I slip into our room. I’m careful not to wake you up as I enter. I just need to grab a few things: my book, a phone charger, and a blanket. I don’t intend to sleep with you tonight. If you wake up and you’re still angry, I won’t have the energy to deal with it.
I stay out of the way. As I’m leaving, I hear you suddenly shoot up in bed behind me. I turn around, my things for the night bundled in my arms, and watch as you begin throwing up all over yourself and the bed. “Hold on, baby, don’t get up.” I drop everything I’m holding and bolt out of the room. I don’t turn on any lights behind me. I head straight for the kitchen, to grab the trash can for you to finish vomiting into. A few steps before I reach the trash, I scream out in sudden pain. I look down at my feet and realize I am standing directly in the pile of the candle’s broken glass. I pull the bigger chunks of glass out, and the blood runs quick. I don’t have time to worry about the tiny ones. I pick up the trash can, and begin my hobble back down the hallway to our room. I wince with every step.
When I get back inside, I can see that you’ve continued to throw up down the front of your shirt. “Come over to the edge of the bed, towards me,” I coax you gently. You look up, as if noticing that I’m here for the first time all night. You say my name. I shake my head. “Just come here.”
Slowly, I get you to sit on the corner of the bed, your legs hanging over the side and touching the floor. I hold the trash can in front of you, and you throw up into it. “I’m going to put this on the floor for a second, okay? Lean over into it if you need to.”
I put the trash can down, and begin the task of taking your shirt off. I’m careful not to touch any puke, or to get any of it onto you. Once I have it off, I use the soiled shirt to wipe the lingering vomit off of your chin. You puke again. I kiss the top of your head. “Let’s move to the bathroom now. Can you get up? I’ll walk with you.”
With a concentrated effort, I have you off the bed and on your feet. With each of us holding one corner of the trash can and holding onto each other, we begin the hurried walk to the bathroom. I sit you on the floor in front of the toilet. You throw up some more. I sit down behind you for a minute, rubbing your back consolingly. Once you appear to be settled, I get up again to get you a glass of water. I leave it next to the toilet. “I’m putting this cup of water right here, and I need you to drink some. It’ll make you feel better.”
“Uh-huh,” you respond, resting your face on the rim of the toilet. “Don’t fall asleep in here,” I caution. “I’ll be back to check on you in a minute.”
I leave again, this time to take care of the bedroom. When I get in there, I notice the little circles of red left on the carpet by my bloody feet. They don’t matter, because the candle doesn’t matter, because dinner doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I clean up the room so you have somewhere clean and comfortable to lay down when you’re all done. I take the blanket and sheets off the bed and rush them to the sink, along with your shirt. I rinse the vomit off of all three, and put them in the hamper. I pull out a clean shirt out of the dresser for when you come back. I go into the closet and find another sheet to put on the bed. With the clean sheets pulled taut against the mattress, I spread out on the bed in defeat. A few minutes later, I hear you open the bathroom door and begin stumbling back to our room. As soon as you come in you lay down with me, your head resting against my chest.
“What happened to the water I gave you?” I ask, unsure if you even drank any.
“Huh?” you mumble, already half-asleep.
“Never mind. I can go look for it.” I continue lying in bed, waiting for the pain in my feet to subside. The cuts have started to itch more than they burn, like there are ants crawling all over the soles of my feet. You begin to stir on my chest. “Callista. I can feel your heart right now.” I watch your head rise and fall with the rhythm of my breathing, and I nod. “I know. But I can’t feel yours.”