While she doesn’t sleep, he sits at the foot of her bed and thinks about her bookshelves.
This is death in its reality: we can’t take physical things with us when we go. He wonders if we can even take memories. Still, she has full shelves, new volumes shoved into any nook and cranny she can find, everything from medical school notes to classics to puff pieces she would never admit to having read lining her shelves, mostly alphabetized. Or, rather, they were alphabetized a few years ago, but since then, she hasn’t been great about keeping up with the organization, has been haphazard in replacing certain things. If he were to look hard enough, he would find the copies she lent him, all of which aren’t in their alphabetically proper spot. Dana Scully doesn’t hoard, doesn’t own to excess, but he feels dwarfed by the books in her bedroom, by their imposing presence, an old god watching over her. Outside, there is the bone-cold spring rain, no sun in the sky, her window being hit with steady drops. For now, the lights are off so that she can sleep, and the dimness casts them both in the grey-blue of dark days, muted colors over muted sensations. He has watched her vomit into nearly-melted snowbanks. He is watching her die. Sitting at the foot of her bed, looking away from her, he wonders where her books will go when she herself goes. He wants to keep them. He wants to keep everything.
If he leaves her apartment, then she will be gone. It feels only right that, in wake of the horrors of death, he can’t think logically anymore. Though leaving her place right now would be simple, he fears the outcome, feels like a small child in how having her out of her sight, not being able to hear her breathing, would make him think she simply doesn’t exist anymore. Each day, he tells her, Scully, you don’t need to come into work, you don’t need to be here, it’s okay to take a day off, but he’s glad when she comes to work anyway, when she spends days doing mundane paperwork near him, when he can glance up from his own file and watch how she brings her forefinger to her mouth as she flips the page. These are the things he can keep: recordings of her on his voicemail, her signature on their neglected paperwork, the intricate look of her as she turns pages in front of him. Because she can’t keep herself, he’ll keep her for as long as he will live. He’s going to map out all of her that he can, then tuck her away so that she’ll always be a part of him. He's going to put her in scrapbooks, in boxes. He's going to keep her everywhere and nowhere all at once.
However, he doesn’t look at her now, for he thinks she doesn’t want to be seen, and he thinks he doesn’t want to witness either, for looking at her would mean seeing how death is a reality right now, not in the distant-but-near future but right now. Three months ago, she wasn’t given long, and now, the chemotherapy and radiation are beginning to show their true uselessness; she is dying, and she’s dying quickly, and she is going to be gone soon. She is going to be gone by summer. It is spring, and she is going to be gone by summer. He won’t receive any birthday cards this year. She’ll never turn another year older. He’s going to be alone in his office, more alone than he’s ever been, even more alone than he’d been before she’d been assigned to work with him. She is going to be in a casket, and he knows that for sure because she’s mentioned that to him as if it were her phone number or the make and model of the car she drives. He will be at her funeral. She doesn’t want a wake. By summer, she will be gone, and he will be alone in this world, and she’ll be gone.
It shouldn’t feel like truncation, for she’s an accomplished woman, a doctor, an esteemed professional, someone who’s done things with her life, but it’s bitter nonetheless, how young she is, how unknowing. Bunching his trousers in the palms of his hands, he wonders if she ever wanted children, if she expected to be married by now, if the trajectory of her life had been in a different direction that only this cancer disrupted. She’s told him to stop blaming himself for this, so he won’t say this is his fault, but still, what has life kept from her? What has her God kept from her? It’s all in God’s plan, he’s heard, but he doesn’t believe in her God, and even if he did, he would think this God of hers is cruel, insane and cruel, taking her for no good reason, hurting her like this just for entertainment. Shouldn’t she have had some warning, a sign that this year would be her last, a way of knowing that she should’ve made last Christmas really count?
Soon enough, he will have a last memory of her being alive. He almost wishes they could rehearse that last moment so that they would both have something to cling to, something to care about, but instead, he thinks it’ll be dark and uncomfortable, that she’ll be barely aware, that he’ll be asking her to go. It’s okay, he thinks he would say, for she’s too stubborn to give up. It’s okay. It’s okay. And what will he be then, her colleague? Her work partner? A family friend? When he met her at the hospital today, while they were pulling intravenous tubing from her bruised arm, he kissed her cheek and watched her ever-so-slightly smile at that. In a chair that dwarfed her, colored pink like calamine that made her skin in comparison look dead, she leaned her head against an arm-rest, too tired to hold it up herself. She had a blanket over her lap, the kind of blanket made by church-goers for other church-goers when one of those church-goers had cancer, fleece and tied at the edges, not sewn. No blazers, no makeup. Based on her demeanor, this was a bad day, and he had plenty of potential to make it worse, so he kept his distance, waited for her cues. Though she typically walked out with him, sometimes leaning on him but usually managing on her own, this time she asked to be taken out of the hospital in a wheelchair. Hospital policy meant that a nurse had to steer her out; he was left to pull his car around, leaving her behind as she achingly cowered into the chair, as she steadied herself all alone. While taking the stairs, he felt his heart pound, echoed that image of her in his mind, bracing herself, bracing for what she knew was coming, giving in. She's not going to fight this anymore, he knew then, and though that idea make him feel as if he were about to faint, he remembered her exhaustion and knew that giving in was the most valiant thing she could do now.
In bed, she seems too tired even to cry, even to vomit, too sick to be sick anymore. He wants to lie down beside her and say the perfect thing that will make all of this right in some way; he wants to annihilate the delusion that he could ever be capable of such a thing. Soon enough, she’ll be dead, and he’ll be a work colleague, a strange relation. He wishes her illness could’ve physically scarred him so that he could have a reason for his pain; he wants to be able to pull a sleeve back and say right there, that’s where it hurts. It’s going to hurt for a long time. I think I want it to keep hurting because, if it were to stop, then I might forget. And I don’t want to forget. I never want to forget.
He speaks for no good reason, and for the only good reason.
“We could get married,” he says before he can think the statement through.
With his tone quiet, with the room still, with her potentially sleeping behind him, he knows this could go unremembered. He wants it to go unremembered. He wants to know that he did all he could in order to give himself to her, in order to express what he’s felt for so long, but to never really actualize that everything, to have tried and failed to opt for that painful and vulnerable confrontation. If they had more time, he would ask her in five years instead, but it’s spring now, and she’ll be gone by summer. He wants to say he asked so that he’ll know he never left any question unanswered.
A few minutes pass in silence, her breathing strangely even, her exhaustion lumping her onto one side of the bed. For now, they won’t look at each other and instead will close their eyes and feel each other as merely a presence in a room, warmth and soft sound sensed close by but still far away. They both smell like hospitals. If it didn’t require moving, he would get up and find that pillow spray he knows she keeps nearby, taking a smaller bottle with her on their trips so that she has something to spruce up motel room linens with, and cover the room with it, drowning out the unfortunate reality with something lighter, airier, more beautiful. This time, he wants to go home smelling of her pillow spray, not of where she’ll likely die.
“Would you mind making me some tea?” she asks, making him flinch with surprise at the sound of her voice. With her tone low, her speech dry, she sounds drained, too tired even to sleep. “There’s chamomile in the cabinets.”
So he nods and stands, looking back at her as he leaves the bedroom, seeing the curve of her body in bed, the way she sinks into the mattress. Though he’s always seen her as small, as little shoes alongside his, as skirts he could hardly fit a single leg of his in, she’s never been so frail to him, so fragmented. At first, he could deny it all, but now, she looks as if she’s dying. If they were to go out to a park together, others would be able to see that she’s dying. She has nosebleeds on cases now; he’s started keeping little packages of tissues in his pockets in case she forgets her own. As he fills her kettle with water, puts it on the stove, he sits with the question he asked, with what it means now. He’s practically asking her to be his widow, but somehow, he’s okay with that, wants to keep a picture of their marriage in his apartment so that anyone who comes over can ask who she is and have him say oh, that’s my wife, she died this past summer. But he isn’t going to have anyone over, for the Gunmen he’ll surely shut out, and other than them, she’s the only person who comes over. After she found out that they needed to start trying a more aggressive form of chemotherapy, she came over and watched Goodfellas because that was what he had out from Blockbuster, and when she cried on his couch midway through the movie, not even at a sad part, he settled his hand on one of her knees and asked, what’s wrong? She’d shaken her head in response, and he’d let it go, knowing that what she needed most was something normal, not a long talk about how she felt about dying. Before she went home that night, she told him of her next chemotherapy date, asked him if he wouldn’t mind picking her up, and since then, he’s been the one to take her home. That feels, he thinks, like something worthy of marriage.
Taking the kettle off early, hoping she’s fallen asleep and that she missed the question altogether, he pours the water into two mugs, pops teabags in, watches the way the bags float to the surface, how steam rises. He does want to marry her; he meant it when he asked. Still, he hasn’t thought beyond asking, and in all honesty he hadn’t even thought about asking until after he asked, but he does want to marry her, and the more he thinks about it, the more he agonizes over it in her dimly lit kitchen, the more he wants to go back into her bedroom and cautiously ask for an answer. You can mull it over, he rehearses in his mind, but I mean it. And I do want an answer. And I understand and respect if that answer is no.
Back in her bedroom, he finds her still awake, her eyes heavy and tired but still open, her neck moving in an uncomfortable swallow as she watches him set her mug down on her bedside table. There’s a chair at the edge of the room, so he goes to sit over there, to have his own tea at a distance, but she reaches out for him before he can move, her small hand soft against his sleeve. On her nails, there’s a pink paint, pale and almost unnoticeable but still clearly pink. The skin of her fingers looks so smooth.
“There would be consequences,” she says, gaze stuck on their arms together, her fingers and his sleeve, the little hairs on her bare skin and the white fabric of his shirt, “for both of us. Long-term consequences.”
“Okay,” he says, almost unsure of what she means, tracking the intricate movements of her hand. It seems suddenly so pertinent that he know the arc and curve of each one of her fingers.
“It would be legal, not just symbolic,” she says, and for a moment, he thinks her hand might be shaking, and not from the chemotherapy. “I would want it before God.”
“Yeah,” he says, dumbfounded, mind blank, able to hear her but unable to truly understand what she means.
“If you meant it seriously,” she backpedals for a moment, and her grip is loosening, and if he had power, if he could take the place of this God of hers, he would make her tense the muscles of her hand once more, hold tighter, “that is.”
Now, he looks to her, and her eyes are half-hooded and dark, in the grey-blue scale of the rest of this rainy room, and she looks like she’s dying, and she looks like her springtime freckles are just beginning to bloom. This is the face she’ll be buried with, he thinks, not some far-off one with wrinkles and sun spots, with laughter lines and pockmarks and divots from kisses. Though she won’t meet his gaze, this distance feels close enough, as if she’s starting to let him in, as if he now deserves this closeness but will eventually earn more.
“I meant it seriously,” he says, almost panting as he says it, needing the words out. “I meant it-”
“I don’t need a ring,” she says, dismissing the conversation, letting go of his arm. On her bedside table, steam wafts up from her untouched mug; next to the mug is a novel, a lighthearted one, and her bookmark is midway through. The tissue box on the nightstand is full and looks brand new. “Tomorrow, I’ll ask if there’s time during mass this Sunday.”
It’s Thursday. He has to have a ring by Sunday. Though he hates her God for his horrors, he won’t go before her God without a ring.
“Okay,” he says, for there’s nothing else he can say.
The next day, she resigns from her position at work, effective immediately. His office is empty months earlier than expected, and though he asks her to lunch in some kind of celebration or angst, she says no, she’s too sick, she really should head home. There’s Chinese delivery that goes home, right? he asks, and she smirks as if that’s something actually charming to say, and he drives her there, listens while she recites their usual order over the phone, helps her out of the passenger’s seat and steadies her when nausea hits in the elevator.
Over lo mein, she asks him to wear a suit and tie, she doesn’t care what kind of tie, just one that won’t be too insulting to the Sunday crowd. She tells him her mother is baking them a cake, something small, and the tradition is to put two slices into the icebox, share those slices on the first anniversary.
“I know that might seem like a big ask,” she says, tone cautious, not looking at him, “but-”
“I’ll do it,” he says.
And she nods to herself, smiles slightly, and it’s something to hold onto, he thinks. One year from Sunday, he will eat frozen old cake and think of the little smile on her lips as he made her a promise. By then, he thinks, he’ll not even be close to wanting to take off his ring.
On Sunday, she wears a dress that’s pale blue, long-sleeved and to the knee, cinched at the waist, beautiful, making her eyes and darker veins stand out; he wears a suit and a tie without a pattern, and when they’re seated in a pew together, just the two of them and her mother, she whispers to him, I was kind of hoping you’d wear one of the ugly ones. The ceremony is short and to the point, just two people standing before a priest, the vows standard and repetitive, and when he’s asked to speak, when the priest uses his first name, he stills, feeling the suddenness of this union, wondering if he made the right decision. Should he have asked at all? It feels almost like a burden to put on her, his asking. If she only has months to live, then she deserves to spend those months with people who love her; she deserves to spend her time doing what she desires with those more important to her, and he can already think of her brother’s potential reaction, of how such a sudden and sickened decision could be used against her. But as he starts to have doubts, he sees her alongside him, and she has that same look on her face, the one she had when she told him she might beat this, when she told him she wouldn’t give up. By mid-afternoon - maybe before the end of the morning - she is going to be exhausted enough to retire to bed, but still, she looks determined to stay up, to take part in her own life today. Even if they haven’t talked it through yet, it’s clear to him: they both want this, whether or not they’re willing to fully admit to such a thing.
When he shows that they have rings to exchange, she blushes, almost seeming angry. Of course he didn’t listen. Of course he went out and found some on such short notice. They’re generic, just gold bands, but they’re wedding bands nonetheless. Though he wanted to give her a diamond, he knew she would fret over it, and there’s a fine line, he thinks, with the prospect of death: she doesn’t want him to hold onto a dead woman’s ring, simultaneously expensive and useless, but the thought of him selling it - or, worse, reusing it - is too painful to imagine. So, no diamond. He whispers under his breath that they can resize if need be; hers is just a little bit loose but not uncomfortably so. After he puts the ring on her, he looks down at their joined hands and almost shudders, the sight so odd, his crooked and uncouth fingers putting a ring on her pale, dainty little ones; this is a marriage, a wanted marriage, and her words return to him them, legal, not just symbolic. She hadn’t wanted them to pretend to be something different; she’d wanted this to be official, in front of her God, legal beyond meaningful, real in every sense.
As they leave the church, their hands clasped in a bashful and half-hidden way, aimlessly thanking the overheard congratulations as they walk down the front steps, he asks her, So where to now? And she’s quiet as she slows her pace, and she brings their clasped hands behind themselves, as if hiding from herself, as if almost embarrassed, but when he looks into her eyes, he understands the embarrassment, the strange vulnerability of really caring about something, about someone. She looks at him wide-eyed and grows tense because she knows that he will give her whatever she asks for, and as he does so, he’ll remember how much she hates flying, and he’ll keep chamomile teabags in his pockets so that she can have something to calm her stomach while they’re at highway rest areas, and he’ll feel a newlywed enchantment while looking at her half-open suitcase in their rented bedroom, unable to tear his eyes away from it but also unable to pick his way through it. Once, while they were at a Motel 6 outside of San Bernardino, she asked him to grab her spare pair of pants from her suitcase, and he dipped into her room and spent all too long in there before cowering back out and saying, sorry, Scully, but I couldn’t find them. And then, she went into the room and found that, if he had simply moved her folded pajamas aside, he would have found exactly that pair of her pants.
She doesn’t know where he’ll sleep tonight. They’ve kissed exactly once, and in a church no less. She could ask him to take her to the moon, and unfortunately, he would say, Well, I know a guy who….
“The ocean,” she manages, the parish behind her echoing with sentiments that don’t make any sense. This is the most chaste wedding they’ve ever seen, she thinks, then feels as if the exact opposite of that statement is true. “I’d like to go to the ocean.”