He smokes Marlboro cigarettes with the bedroom door locked. It’s an old habit that he refuses to break. I taste the cigarettes on his breath, his lips and his skin. I come over after class and leave my bike unchained on his front porch. I sit on his bed and watch him take in long, unhealthy drags. It is a mattress on the floor. Sometimes, we make love on it and I wonder if he’d rather have his mouth around another flaming cigarette than on me.
Then, he coughs. He has asthma.
The smoking is killing him. I once hid his cigarettes beneath the sink, but he just bought new ones and hid them better. I threaten to tear apart his room in search of the foul paper sticks, but instead, I cried with my head in my hands. He had his head down in the pillow, coughing and coughing until he vomited. I cried once more for him and he told me to stop being such a pussy. That throwing up was a daily occurrence for him and I worried too much. I told him that I loved him. He didn’t say anything and drew another cigarette, kissing it in ways he’d never kiss me.
I sleep over. He is so beautiful when he sleeps. My friends don’t understand what I see in him. Long, oily brown hair. Dark eyes. Sharp limbs. I whisper to him as he sleeps. We will get married one day and have children. I pray for sons that look just like him. Our life will be beautiful. He sighs and rolls over onto his back.
I want to know what he is dreaming about when his mouth hangs half-open. I kiss it, just to feel a kiss from him without the usual roughness and teeth. Does he dream of me? I dream of him. The nights where I am away from him, he’s all that’s in my head. I asked once what was in his head and he told me I’d never understand.
But I want to.
It is winter now and I’ve brought us coffee with the money I’ve earned from my four-hour a week job. He sips and I watch tuffs of cold air swirl from his nostrils. He tells me that caffeine causes cancer. I offer to buy him a juice but he says he isn’t afraid of cancer. He isn’t afraid of anything.
But I am. I’m afraid of everything. I take the coffee from his hands and throw it onto the road. Then, I throw mine. He calls me an idiot and walks back inside the house. His feet are very loud up the stairs and down the hall to his bedroom.
Now he cannot breathe. I hear it; the coughing. Then the gasping. Then nothing. The strings holding my heart up come undone and I lose my sense of balance. I fall up the stairs rushing to him. I reach out to hold him, just to only be pushed away. He apologizes with his eyes as he struggles to find air. I panic and wonder if his lungs are not working. Maybe he has forgotten how to breathe. Maybe he has had too much caffeine and this is cancer. I don’t care any longer. I just want to hold his hand.
I love you. Please let me help you, I beg. His breath is back now, but it is short and painful. If you love me, he struggles, leave me the fuck alone. And I do. I want him to believe. If I try and help anymore he’ll think I don’t love him. But I do. I do love him more than anything.
I fall asleep in his bedroom doorway. When I wake, the sun has set and the world is a dark blue. I wander to his bedroom and lay beside him, brushing hair from his eyes and tucking strands behind his ear. He sighs and puts his hands under his face. He looks different sleeping, not struggling for breath. He is beautiful. And I cry.