The sound pierced the settling silence like the report of a distant thunderclap, a long rumble that petered off into a pathetic gurgling groan.
Theo, caught between a smirk and a smile, turned to the woman lying beside her. "Hungry?"
Trish exhaled in a helpless laugh. "I skipped dinner." Trish rubbed at her face. "I was grading papers and lost track of time."
Theo's mirth evaporated into a frown. "You didn't have to come over."
Trish smiled. "I wanted to come over."
Theo hesitated. "I have cereal and milk."
Puzzlement marked the journey of Trish's smile to a questioning grin.
"Actually, not cereal, granola. It's . . . kind of the only thing I've got over here," admitted Theo. "I can sneak over to the house and fry up some eggs or make a sandwich if you want--"
"--but if I do that, there's a chance that Shirley or Kevin will wake up."
Trish flopped onto her side to face Theo and propped her head up on a hand. "I'll just . . . eat something when I get home."
The subtext of the proposal hunched like a challenge in Trish's eyes. Theo didn't like it. The probing, the groping, the indirect inquiry. She didn't like taste-testing the words of permission at the back of her throat, the tug-of-war between throwing caution to the wind and letting the words of invitation fly against the twist of her gut reeling the impulse back down strangled to drown in the tight and nervous clench of her viscera.
Theo swallowed. "I wouldn't want you to drive home hungry."
Trish scanned Theo's face slowly, like an exam she was grading, and conceded with a smile. "What kind of granola?"
"Do you like raisins?" Theo asked, reaching for a shirt.
Oh, God, nothing was familiar. Even the air on Theo's bare skin felt foreign, oppressive, as if the unfamiliar scents and aromas were trying to invade her pores. Or maybe that was a phantom effect of the throbbing right behind her eye, a spike shoved so deeply into Theo's skull that she felt like she should chase after it with an ice pick. She wasn't fit for any manner of escape in this state.
A raid of the medicine cabinet in the bathroom yielded no aspirin. Theo tiptoed into the kitchen and with sluggish, halting urgency rifled through the pantry and drawers, pausing at moments to lean against the nearest counter until equilibrium returned. The discovery of the drinking glasses at least meant Theo could soothe her parched throat.
The aspirin was in a top cabinet. Theo threw back two pills.
Normally this state of agonized affairs resulted from a previous night's attempted liver poisoning, but the amount of alcohol Theo had imbibed the night before had measured one beer.
This was just a case of a shitty night's sleep.
A. Really. Shitty. Night's. Sleep.
It was just this place. Trish's place. That was to say, not Theo's place. Where everything looked and smelled and felt different. The pillow was too flat. The sheets retained too much heat. The position of the bed in the room felt off. A bar of light beamed through a gap in the curtains sat on the ceiling at a slant that looked obtrusive. Everything that brushed and lay against Theo's skin sent out ripples of formless, amorphous impressions, wisps of intangible images and emotions, a jumble of highs and lows that spiked through Theo like sugar that set her mind abuzz in the deepening silence.
This was why Theo didn't stay over nights.
Theo shouldn't have stayed the night.
Idly, since she was already in the kitchen and a distraction sounded welcome, Theo snuck a peek into Trish's refrigerator. The usual suspects of condiments lined the shelves, along with some unrecognizable ones. Takeout containers clustered with tupperware. Fruit crowded the crisper. Juice. Almond milk. Eggs.
Eggs sounded good.
Eggs still sounded good five minutes after Theo had closed the refrigerator. Her stomach rumbled.
A frying pan was on the stove top. A close inspection determined it was clean. The aspirin began to work its magic as Theo rooted for supplies. Butter sat on the inside of the refrigerator door. Salt and pepper were in an upper cabinet. Plates occupied a shelf beneath the drinking glasses. Three spatulas peeked out among cooking implements cohorts in a container by the stove.
The burner clicked repeatedly without lighting. The frenetic effort echoed loud in the quiet, as if berating Theo for presuming to cook. She tensed to twist the dial off--and the flames reared up blue and hot. The butter hit the pan with a sizzle. Theo's mouth watered. This was a smell she could relax into.
"I don't have any bread," came Trish's voice from behind Theo, "so no toast. But there's still some rice in the rice cooker."
Theo glanced over her shoulder. "How do you take your eggs?"
"Over easy," Trish said.
Theo plucked an egg from the carton, but rested it uncracked against the lip of the frying pan and eyed Trish warily. "Do you want me out of your kitchen?"
Trish lifted an eyebrow. "You look like you know what you're doing."
Theo accepted the upcoming evaluation of her skill. "How many eggs would you like?"
"Two eggs, over easy, coming right up."
"I'll make coffee," Trish said.
That sounded heavenly. The percolating caffeine-carrier smelled divine and inviting.
Theo started to feel better.
And it was almost nice, almost passable, when they sat down at the small dining table, two plates--rice with a sprinkle of soy sauce for Trish, just scrambled eggs for Theo--and two mugs, the early day quiet and the sun warming the space, Trish's smile soft and her eyes gently appraising Theo across the table, a hum of approval in Trish's throat at the first bite, all of it almost enough to erase a night passed badly.
By meal's end, it was enough to at least make the case that maybe this was something worth trying again.
Theo tasted the porridge. Granted, Theo didn't know what it was supposed to taste like and she wouldn't have numbered herself among the most competent cooks in the world, but she could tell that it probably needed salt. But was this an occasion where she should add salt?
What was she doing?
Theo added salt. A little bit of salt.
Theo stepped back from the pot. There was nothing left to do. Except serve.
Theo cracked open the bedroom door and stepped cautiously up to the bed. Steeling herself with a deep breath, Theo lay her hand gently upon Trish's forehead. She pushed away the trickle of feedback--the discomfort and crumminess, a flash of images that held no context--and focused on the physical sensations tickling through her nerves, the clamminess of the skin, the heat radiating into her palm.
"Hey," Theo said softly.
Trish blinked up at Theo muzzily.
"How are you feeling?" Theo asked.
Trish grumbled indistinctly.
"Do you think you can eat something?" Theo asked. "You haven't eaten anything yet today. I'm going to make you a cup of tea and bring you a bowl of soup, okay?"
The sound Trish made perhaps wasn't assent but Theo wasn't surprised. Trish's throat had been scratchy when they'd last spoken.
When Theo returned with a steaming bowl of porridge, she warned, "It's hot."
Trish pushed herself up into a sitting position with the halting jerkiness that telegraphed aches and let Theo settle the bowl atop her blanketed lap. When Trish woke enough to evaluate the bowl, she froze. With a spurt of energy to summon wonder, Trish breathed, "Cháo."
Just as she'd been sinking down to sit on the edge of the bed, Theo's heart plummeted. "The recipe called it congee."
Trish smiled. "The Chinese name." She paused. “I don’t know if that’s Mandarin or Cantonese.”
"Oh, good," Theo said. "For a second I thought I made the wrong thing. I just put 'rice porridge' into Google."
"You made this?" Trish asked, eyes bright with more than fever.
"Well . . . I followed the recipe as best I could," hedged Theo.
Trish grinned. "I can't believe you made this. How did you know about it?"
"When I got sick last time, you mentioned that this was what you liked to eat when you were sick," said Theo. "It didn't look hard to make, so I thought I'd try."
Trish gazed at the contents of the bowl for a long time, idly swirling the spoon through the porridge, ostensibly waiting for it to cool. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Theo said. More hesitantly, she added, "We'll see if you thank me after you've tried it."
Trish smirked. "Okay."
When she'd gathered the energy, Trish raised a spoonful to her lips and blew across the contents. Time passed agonizingly to Trish's hampered slowness before Trish slipped the bite whole into her mouth.
Theo leaned forward. "How is it?"
"Honestly," croaked Trish, "I can't taste it." She smiled. "But I love it. Thank you."
(Later, having leftovers, Trish showed Theo the missing ingredient: fish sauce.)
"Pancakes! Pancakes! Pancakes!" chanted Allie.
"Give me a minute," chided Theo as she poured a dollop of batter onto the griddle. Theo shot Trish a look as if to say This is why I don't have breakfast in the main house.
Trish smiled back.
"Aunt Theo, can I have another piece of bacon?" Jayden asked, eyeing the remaining strips on the plate.
"Ask if anyone else would like any more," came Shirley's voice as she entered the kitchen.
No one wanted any more bacon. Jayden helped himself to not just one, but two strips.
Allie turned to Trish eagerly. "Do you like roller coasters?"
"I love roller coasters," Trish said.
"Can we ride all the roller coasters?" asked Allie breathlessly.
"Sure, we can ride whatever you want," said Trish.
"Better you than me," muttered Theo.
"Aunt Theo doesn't like roller coasters," Allie confided to Trish.
Trish leaned conspiratorially close to Allie. "No?"
"Aunt Theo does not," confirmed Theo, flipping a bubbling pancake. The aversion had little to do with the concept of thrill rides and more to do with the fact that nervous and frightened energy surrounding the attractions tended to be palpable. It made Theo's stomach churn long before ever arriving at the end of the queue.
"Maybe we should go to the zoo or the water park instead?" suggested Trish.
"No!" protested Allie. "I want to ride the roller coasters! And eat cotton candy!"
"Maybe not so much cotton candy," warned Shirley.
"It's what Allie wants," lamented Theo to Trish. "And I promised she could pick where we go as her birthday present."
"Sorry I can't go with you," said Shirley, leaning on the counter next to Theo. "Are you guys going to be okay?"
Theo smirked. "Are you okay entrusting your kids to us?"
"I trust you," said Shirley softly, her volume about equal to the amount of confidence conveyed. Shirley smirked. "Trish seems responsible."
"We'll find out, won't we?" Theo said with a hint of theatrical glee. "We'll be fine." With a flourish, she slid a plate of pancakes before Allie and another before Trish. "But we have a long day ahead, so everyone eat up."
Theo held Trish's gaze, playing back Shirley's words, and the softness that reflected back from Trish's eyes assured Theo that everything would be okay.
Theo opened her eyes to late morning. The level of brightness filtering into the room suggested late morning anyway. She didn't bother checking the clock to confirm her suspicions.
"Good morning, Mrs. Tran," mumbled Trish, voice husky with sleep.
Theo smirked, then smiled. "Good morning, Mrs. Crain.”
Their words required a beat to settle and then they both giggled. At themselves. At the new reality. That it was real. That it was true.
Trish scooted close and nestled into Theo's side and for a time Theo simply held her wife, Trish's left hand upon her tummy, the band on Trish's finger catching a slant of light.
Contentment settled on Theo, her own or Trish's, Theo couldn't tell.
"What should we do today?" Theo asked, running her fingers through Trish's hair.
Theo made a face. "I don't want to make breakfast."
"Then let's go out for breakfast."
"Okay. Sounds good to me."
Trish snuggled closer and chuckled. "I guess this is our first decision as . . . wives."
"Pretty easy," declared Theo. "Who said this marriage stuff was hard?"
"It was hard to decide between using 'wife and wife' or 'wives.'"
Theo smiled. "It did sound awkward. Why not 'spouses'?"
"That doesn't sound sexy," griped Trish
Theo shrugged. It didn't sound that unsexy. Maybe not as sexy, but not necessarily unsexy. It still meant they were married. But Theo didn't push. No need to needle her wife first thing in the morning.
They lay in one another's warmth, drowsiness creeping back into the bed.
"If we want breakfast," murmured Trish, "we have to get up."
"It's the first joint decision of our marriage," reasoned Trish. "We should make it happen."
Theo sighed. "Can't we take our marriage slowly?"
"You sound like my sister," Trish pointed out. "'Are you sure you want to get married so soon?'"
"Alright, alright," exhaled Theo, as if put upon by not just the comparison but the judgment of the universe, "let's get breakfast."
Trish smiled up at Theo and kissed her--not their first kiss in marriage, but certainly not the last--and any facade of grumpiness floated away on the lightness of Theo's heart.