Her breath is coming in quick bursts, the sound of a steam engine pushing along the tracks, not quite able to reach its destination. I watch her as she searches the room, finds me and closes her eyes. I don't want to watch her die. It cements her absence in a way I am not ready to deal with. I walk out of the room and as I do, I hear her words, "Don’t forget me." I start to cry.
When I first met her, she was dancing barefoot on the beach, her skirt swishing around her calves as the hem dipped into the frothy waves of the Pacific Ocean. Her laugh was enchanting, her body dangerously inviting. We were seventeen and penniless.
She asked me to be her roommate and we spent the summer living off peanut butter sandwiches and cartons of rice from the Chinese food place below our apartment. I played the guitar on the corner while she danced, passersby throwing loose change and crumpled bills into an empty coffee can. At night, she would lie across my bed wearing only her bra and panties and I would play for her, lining up the curves of my Gibson with the curves of her hips. I sang “Black Magic Woman” and “Stairway to Heaven” while she lay on her side, tracing patterns on my grandmother’s quilt.
The first time I kissed her was on Halloween. She was dressed as a mermaid, real sand dollars pressed against her breasts, her satin skirt ruffled at her ankles like the shimmery fins of a mermaid tail. We gave away fortune cookies instead of candy and she hugged every kid who knocked on the door. When the last of the trick-or-treaters finally left, she opened all the fortune cookies and divided up the fortunes between us. I leaned across the table and kissed her quick; a soft brush of my lips against hers. She walked out of the room and left me sitting at the table.
She came back wearing only my guitar, the strap slung over her shoulder. We spent the night wrapped in my grandmother’s quilt, making promises and telling secrets between nervous kisses. Stella was mine for a whole year. Until she fell in love with someone else.
The week after her death passes by in a black-clothed-blur and I drown myself in the sweet burn of amber-colored rum and hand-rolled cigarettes. People come and go—casseroles and meat platters and pies show up on countertops covered with tents of crinkled foil, brought by neighbors, friends, family; food brings little consolation in the hollow sound of silence her death has presented. I nod and accept the half-hugs of comfort but I am far removed from it all. I am lost in the past, thinking of the strands of hair that coiled tightly against her smooth skin, the way her mouth tasted after a cigarette, the smell of her conditioner.
A hand curls around my shoulder. I turn and look at my brother, the grief painted so heavily onto his face that I have to look away, positive that it mirrors my own. He doesn’t know about us. He doesn’t know that I was crazy in love with his wife when I introduced them, or that, on their wedding night she called me to tell me she missed me. He doesn’t know that I was the first person she told about the cancer, or that she and I spent a weekend together not long ago. He doesn’t know any of this. And I don’t tell him.
“Thank you, Coral. I would be lost without you here,” he smiles, his eyes laced with red from crying too much.
“I loved her too,” I say.
“Yeah, you did, didn’t you?” He hugs me tightly, and I realize that he knows. We hold onto each other, both of us remembering Stella.