Surprisingly, the most in love I have ever felt in my life was not during some romantic or sensual moment that involved a pair of sparkling eyes or luscious lips or even an exciting touch. There was no lovely scenery to set the mood; no beauty in the circumstances in which it occurred. Still. I'm pretty sure I've never been as smacked in the face with love as I was yesterday, when I watched her struggle with the pain, her body tense on the couch.
She tried to sit up, and at first she didn't succeed. The sting was becoming a liquid presence in her eyes. Her face was flushing crimson with the strain of the muscles and the warmth of the heating pad on her tummy. Her expression was one of absolute disgust, the voluptuous lower lip curled up tight into a frown of utter, utter suffering. Trembling slightly. I couldn't help her; all I could do was rub her leg through her brown pajama pants and hope the teensy ounce of pleasure would do something to distract her from her gallons of pain. I felt her little thighs and calves beneath the folds of cotton; felt the bones and the muscles that mixed with her blood and made up the body of a girl I'd grown to love pretty intensely. (Badly enough to want to stay another night, at least; sleep on the floor beside her couch with my hand entwined in hers so she wouldn't be alone.)
Her hair was in disheveled tufts that hung limply, the way the hair of all sick people does. Her tears were on the verge of falling now. She'd periodically shake her head; offer up an incoherent groan or a weary explanation of the most recent hurt. Where was it? Dull or sharp pain? Are you okay? All my usual questions were answered slowly and begrudgingly in between reluctant sips of the water her sister kept urging her to drink, saying, Keep drinking; I know it feels like you're drowning, but it'll help dislodge it. Keep drinking.
Finally she snapped and said, No, no more, the tears inevitable rivers leaking from her eyes. And when she was told to lie down flat she refused, saying in terror, It'll hurt too much. I watched her crumple into a folded mass of flesh on the couch, her head in her hands, her discomfort so tangible I could practically feel it myself.
I wanted to take her pain, I told her later, and put it all on me.
Liar, she said to me.
Her mother came to help her stand up so she could limp to the bathroom, wincing and struggling as she was lifted up and guided to her own feet—she walked slowly, slowly, slowly, their arms gripping hers, across the carpet and toward the door; the pain was a person in her body, a possession that overwhelmed her face.
I remained alone in the sunroom, gazing blankly at the couch strewn with the moon-and-star covers all in disarray where she hadn't moved for hours. She was going to the bathroom now. She was okay. Her mother and her sister were leaning against the wall just outside of the door in case she passed out again. They were her family. They knew how to take care of her. Their bond ran deeper than anything I could touch.
When the pain had first kicked up sometime like a half hour ago, I had been sitting lazily at the opposite end of the couch, her feet propped up in my lap. I had been rubbing her pretty little feet up and down when she started cringing. Deducing that it was getting worse, I moved to the floor beside her and asked where it hurt. She pointed. I reached my arm across her warm, soft, familiar tummy and touched it—light little touches the way she likes; my other hand grazing through her knotted hair. Neither of us had showered in days. We were wearing old clothes that were probably beginning to smell. Behind me empty plastic pudding cups and half-dregged glasses of chocolate milk littered the coffee table; before me, she strained not to cry.
I had been asleep when it first happened. We had had a long night on the pull-out bed in the sunroom (the way we tend to do on nights we're together), and I had still been knocked out cold with exhaustion when her mother padded in the room and greeted me with, She's in the hospital.
I'd been frantic. After her mother walked away I scrambled for my pajama pants—well, hers, the Hello Kitty ones; I'd borrowed them for the night—and in a disoriented frenzy I had rushed to the bathroom to pee, thrown on some clothes, and driven the short distance with her sister to Walter Reed Convalescent Center, where we immediately found her room in the ER. She was conscious again then, dressed in a flimsy old hospital gown; an IV in her arm, her heartbeat projected on a screen. She looked characteristically P.O.ed and restless, so I was relieved. But her father told me what had happened. She had gotten up to go to the bathroom that morning and crumpled to the floor, screaming, her eyes rolling back into her head. Luckily, her father was there, and he'd caught her as she fell. An ambulance had come to take them away.
Now as I sat there waiting for her to return so maybe I could provide some small relief for her, I tried not to feel guilty. What if somehow this had been my fault? Was I too rough last night? Was she hurting partly because of me?
My head fell into my hands and I closed my eyes, just breathing. The house was quiet. The answers didn't matter because regardless, I could do little to alleviate her pain now. My sporadic antidotes of pleasure weren't enough to swallow up all that sharp burning in her stomach. I couldn't make it go away. I couldn't tell it, I love her; now go find someone else to put through hell. I couldn't tell it, Take me instead. All I could do was sit by her couch and watch her, imploring; watch the girl who'd changed my life moan in anguish; watch the tears prick her eyes and die down and then prick up again.
For a moment I pictured those eyes in my head, deep as a soul—big blue baby eyes that iced right through me and knew everything. I pictured them laughing, the way they always deserve to be. I pictured the reality that they weren't.
And I cried.
That night as she laid back on the couch beside me, I curled my legs beneath me, knelt at her side, and kissed her in her hair, on her forehead. She looked peaceful now; the medicine was kicking in and the pain was melting away; I knew she'd be okay. Long dark lashes fluttered indecisively against her flushed skin, drowsy from the drugs, exhausted from the excrutiating day. It was getting late, but I watched her. I didn't want to close my eyes. I reached for her hand and stroked it with my thumb.
I thought about what I always tell her: I just want to take care of you.
Her eyes flickered open then. They studied my face. They were wise, enduring, but innocent, happy eyes. They knew. Her lips curled up into a tiny pink ribbon of a smile.
I smiled too, pressing my head to hers, my wonderful, adorable little Katia, my crazy up-and-down girl of extremes who teaches me a little something in sickness and in health.
"I love you," I whispered, tracing my fingers across her warm cheek. Her eyes fell closed again.
But I knew I didn't have to say it for her to read it from me like she does, an open book. It got cold that night on the floor, and I twisted my hip in about nine different directions so I could still touch her hand as we fell asleep, but there was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been.