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Where the Real Road Lies

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“Let’s go up to the cabin,” Patrick says suddenly, watching David move salad listlessly around on his plate. “Spend a week.”

“We can’t just suddenly decide to go to the cabin,” David says. They’ve called the little place in Muskoka that for years — ‘the cabin’ — as if it belongs to them, rather than just being a place that they’ve rented several times because they love it so much. “Also it won’t be… it won’t be…” David squeezes his eyes shut, his fingers clenching on his fork. Patrick waits for him to find the word. He’s fairly certain he knows what David is trying to say, but he also knows that David sometimes gets angry when Patrick tries to fill in the blank. He’s learned not to do that. Finally David rearranges his thought and gets it out another way. “Someone else will be renting it.”

“Maybe not, this late in the fall. It’s way too cold to swim in the lake.”

David rolls his eyes. “It’s always too cold to swim in the lake,” he says. He has no problem with that sentence, Patrick notices with a smile.

“So can we? If the cabin is available?” Patrick presses, picking up his wine glass and taking a sip. Wine in the evening doesn’t help with his heartburn, but frequently he drinks it with dinner anyway. Perhaps too often, he continues to drink it after dinner as well.

David is shaking his head, his face anxious. “What about the store?”

Patrick frowns, unsure if he should remind David that technically, he doesn’t ever have to be at the store anymore. The store is fully staffed without David having to come in at all if he doesn’t want to, although he still approves new products and arranges displays and offers his opinions on changes to the online storefront which makes up the bulk of their sales these days. Patrick values David’s input — his aesthetic eye is as good as it ever was. But strictly speaking, they can run the store without him. They have to be able to run the store without him.

“Shrishti and Paul can handle the store for a week. And if anything comes up that they can’t handle, I can deal with it remotely,” Patrick says evenly.

The all-too-familiar confusion takes over David’s face, and Patrick realizes with a sinking heart that he’s probably forgotten who Patrick is talking about. Tomorrow morning, David will know their employees Paul and Shrishti as well as he ever has, but right now he doesn’t know who Patrick is talking about. But David is accustomed to the confusion now, and perhaps that’s the most heartbreaking thing of all.

“Okay,” David says quietly, not asking for an explanation. Not wanting to let on that he’s confused. Trusting Patrick to handle things.

“Great,” Patrick says, reaching over and giving David’s hand a brief squeeze. “I’ll call Laura and check on the cabin.”

The cabin isn’t available that coming week but it is available the week after, and Patrick makes a reservation. That’s probably better anyway. It was rash, his idea to run up to the cabin on a moment’s notice. And a sudden trip was not in-line with David’s doctor’s recommendation to minimize upheavals to David’s routine. He still isn’t sure where the impulse came from, if he’s honest. He looked at his husband of twenty-two years across the dinner table, and he thought about all the good times at the Muskoka cabin over the years, and he wanted… he wants one more trip before it’s too late.

Packing is somehow both more and less of an ordeal than it used to be. Gone is the David who had firm demands about what to pack for a trip out of town. Who would deliberate for hours with a laser-like focus on exactly which items of clothing from his neatly folded piles would make the cut. Now David can sometimes get overwhelmed easily, and it becomes clear early on that the packing process is too overwhelming.

“How about we make a game out of it?” Patrick suggests, a wide, forced smile on his face. “I’ll hold things up one at a time, and you tell me if you want to pack them or not. What do you say?”

“I say you’re babying me,” David says, but he sits obediently. “But fine, do the thing.”

He holds up each item of clothing one at a time, letting David give it his approval or rejection, until the suitcase is full. He knows all the hair-care and skin-care products to pack for his husband, and all the foods to bring. Yes, he has to handle all of it himself, but he also doesn’t have David looking over his shoulder and scrutinizing his every decision.

He misses that scrutiny desperately.

Patrick is organizing foods in the kitchen he plans to bring with them when David comes in, wringing his hands.

“Did we pack my Y-3 hoodie?” David asks.

“Yep. It’s in the big suitcase,” Patrick responds, his focus still on his checklist.

Ten minutes later, David is back. “Did my Y-3 hoodie get packed? The one with the side stripes?”

Patrick looks up. “Yeah. Do you want me to show you?”

“No, I believe you. Just checking.”

David ends up asking him six or seven more times about the hoodie, and Patrick says he packed it, every time, only to have David ask again a few minutes later. Patrick has a lot of practice keeping the irritation out of his voice when David gets into one of these thought spirals. He almost manages it this time, but he worries that his irritation slips through the last few times, as it gets late and Patrick is trying to make sure everything is ready for the drive.

If it does, David doesn’t call him on it.

***

Twenty-two months ago

“Where the fuck did I put my tablet?”

Patrick looked up and rolled his eyes. It sort of felt like all David ever did anymore with his tablet was lose it. “Did you leave it in the bathroom?” he called from where he was curled up on the living room sofa, reading.

David stuck his head around the doorway from the kitchen and gave Patrick a withering glance. “No.”

Patrick grinned at him, unrepentant. “Because I found it in the bathroom last week.”

David huffed and stalked away.

A few minutes later David sank down onto the sofa, still no tablet in hand.

“Do you want me to help you look?” Patrick asked.

“No,” David said petulantly. Then, in a different tone of voice, “Something’s wrong with my head. I keep losing things.”

“We’re getting old,” Patrick said without looking up from his book. “It’s normal.” Patrick himself had fifty in the rear-view mirror now, which meant David was rapidly approaching the point where ‘mid-fifties’ would be less than accurate.

“It’s not just that,” David said, and the worry in his voice was enough to make Patrick set his book aside. “It’s more than that.”

“I mean, you’ve always been a little forgetful, sweetheart.” Shifting over on the sofa, Patrick gave David’s upper arm a little squeeze. “Before we were married, you used to show up at work without your wallet, keys, or phone.”

“That happened one time,” David said with a pout. Patrick leaned over and kissed his husband’s protruding lip.

“I just mean, I don’t think it’s anything you need to worry about.” He stroked the back of David’s head, fingers combing through the short black and gray hairs at his hairline. David kissed him back then, seemingly mollified, and went upstairs.

By bedtime, David had found his tablet but clearly hadn’t stopped worrying about his memory. “Also I’m struggling to read books lately,” he said as Patrick climbed into bed, as if the several intervening hours since they’d had this conversation hadn’t passed.

“Well, I told you getting back on social media was a mistake. A lot of people find scrolling through that stuff impacts their attention span. They’ve done so many studies about it.”

David hummed, his hum that meant, ‘I don’t agree but I also don’t feel like arguing.’ Patrick leaned in for a kiss, and that kiss led to another kiss, and before long they were both pleasurably focused on something else entirely. ‘You haven’t forgotten my body,’ Patrick considered joking, but thankfully (he would think later), he resisted the impulse to say those words.

***

Patrick leans forward toward the car steering wheel, stretching out his spine. He always forgets how long the drive to Muskoka is until he’s in the midst of it.

“You should let me drive,” David says, noticing his motions of discomfort.

“The doctor said you aren’t supposed to drive,” Patrick says hesitantly. David’s been sharp the whole trip, taking command of the drive playlist as he has for their entire relationship. Still, Patrick isn’t going to risk him getting behind the wheel.

“I know, but I’m not, like, alone. I’m not going to get lost with you in the passenger seat,” David says as if that’s the only danger with him driving.

“I’m fine, David. I’m not tired.” Patrick can sense David rolling his eyes. “Go ahead, say it.”

“I’ve known you for almost twenty-five years, Patrick. I know when you’re tired.”

Patrick can’t really argue that. “We’re only an hour away. I’ll stop at the next rest stop and stretch my legs and then I’ll be fine.”

They pass an eighteen wheeler hauling lumber, the path ahead of them straight and flat all the way to the horizon. The road is cut into a low hill, the exposed rock variegated with rusty orange-red markings that rush by in Patrick’s periphery. Fluffy clouds dot a perfectly blue sky and beckon him on to their destination.

It’s late afternoon when they pull up to the cabin, and Patrick gauges the position of the sun as he gets out of the car. “We probably have just enough time to get the car unloaded before the sunset.”

David gives him a small smile, like he’s remembering all the sunsets they’ve watched from the back deck of this house. He carries one small item into the house at a time while Patrick loads himself up like a pack mule, and it’s so much like every trip they’ve ever taken together that it almost brings tears to Patrick’s eyes. He stashes the groceries in the kitchen while David rolls their suitcases into the bedroom. They meet at the back door, making their way out into the chilly air just as the sun dips to touch the lake, a red match tip lighting the water on fire.

As they recline together in matching deck chairs, David pulls his hands inside the sleeves of his sweater, pulling them up to his face and blowing out a breath to warm his nose.

“We won’t stay out here long. I know it’s a little cold for you,” Patrick says.

“It’s fine. I’m fine.” David’s gaze is fixed on the water. “I’m glad we came.”

Patrick reaches over and squeezes David’s hand inside the sweater sleeve. “Me too.”

When the sun disappears below the horizon, David starts to shiver and Patrick stands, opening the door and ushering David inside. “I brought the makings for spaghetti puttanesca, is that okay? Do you want to unpack while I get it started?”

“Sure,” David says and heads to the bedroom. Patrick watches him go, his face drawing down into a frown. When he isn’t anxiously spiraling about something, David gets like this sometimes: docile and quiet. It’s more than a little disconcerting. If he had wanted a husband who compliantly followed directions, he would never have married David Rose.

Shaking his head, Patrick walks into the kitchen and pulls ingredients out of bags, putting away several items for later in the refrigerator and cabinets. He pulls a well-used pot out and fills it with water, putting it on the stove to heat to a boil while he opens jars of olives and capers. They emit a satisfying sound as the vacuum releases. The olives and capers get chopped, along with some garlic, and added to a pan with a can of tomatoes. It’s a recipe he’s cooked many times, and he goes into a bit of a trance while he works his way through the familiar steps. He doesn’t notice David joining him in the kitchen until a glass of wine presents itself in his field of vision. Patrick puts down the block of parmesan cheese he was grating and smiles at his husband. “Thanks.”

David gives him a slanted smile and lifts his own wine glass. “Yes, I worked very hard on opening this bottle of wine. A much more difficult job than cooking dinner, when you think about it.”

Patrick chuckles. It’s moments like this that he can almost forget about David’s diagnosis. He seems so normal, sometimes — no different than he’s been on thousands of other evenings they’ve spent together, talking and making dinner.

***

Seventeen years ago

“This place is cute,” David said, standing in the middle of the main room of the cabin and taking in his surroundings. “Rustic, and very small. But cute.”

“Come here, come look at the back,” Patrick said, excitedly opening the back door. “There’s a nice deck out here and a boardwalk that goes down to the lake.”

“Or,” David countered with a shimmy of his hips and shoulders. “We could check out the bedroom. Make sure the bed is acceptable.”

Patrick grinned and followed, because while he had picked this rental because of its proximity to the lake, and he really did want to swim, he was also helplessly attracted to his husband.

They tumbled onto the soft mattress, David pulling Patrick on top of him, and they laughed against each other’s mouths. Eventually the laughter ebbed away and left heat and deeper kisses in its wake. David’s hands came up and cupped Patrick’s face, tilting his head to kiss him harder. Patrick slid a leg between David’s and lined up against his hardness and thrusted, pulling a groan out of David’s chest in the process.

His hand smacked lightly at Patrick’s shoulder a couple of times. “Come on, let’s get naked.”

By the time Patrick redressed and made it outside to look at the lake, it was almost an hour later, and his knees were still wobbly from an outstanding orgasm. David, meanwhile, was dozing in what turned out to be a very comfortable bed.

Patrick inhaled the fresh, clean air and grinned as he walked to the end of the dock. The water was perfectly still, sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine. He continued to breathe deeply, feeling content and so, so happy. A few years ago, he’d married the love of his life, and while some days were a challenge, it still outshined anything he’d ever imagined marriage could be before he figured himself out. Before he met David.

A tiny plopping noise caught his attention, and just as he turned to look in that direction, an osprey swooped down and came up with what looked like a fish in its talons. Poor little fish, he thought as he watched the osprey disappear into the trees, then he turned back to the house to awaken his husband.

***

Patrick swirls his wine and yawns. “Do you want to turn in early tonight? I’m exhausted.”

“I told you,” David says, evidently remembering their debate in the car (and that in and of itself is remarkable). He nods. “Yeah, let’s go to bed.”

Patrick goes into the bedroom to find that David has already unpacked for him — his jeans and sweaters and socks and underwear are tucked carefully into drawers. Patrick, in his youth, used to live out of a duffel bag when he traveled, and it took a few lectures from David on the virtues of fully unpacking for Patrick to see the wisdom in it. Patrick runs a hand over one of his neatly folded sweaters, looking over at the open bathroom door where David is probably on step two of his skincare routine. As Patrick putters around the room waiting for his turn in the bathroom, he keeps an eye on David through the doorway, watching for any indication that he’s struggling with anything. There is none — it’s been a good day for David, he thinks, smiling.

When they are both ready for bed, Patrick pulls David into his arms as they settle against the soft pillows. He feels some of his aches and pains drain out of him as he relaxes, his eyes slipping closed.

“Thank you,” David says softly.

“For what?”

“For bringing us here. I didn’t realize I missed it.”

Patrick smiles and squeezes David’s shoulder. “You’re welcome, sweetheart.”

He falls asleep quickly, and when he awakes in the morning, Patrick feels rested in a way that he hasn’t felt in months. His body also feels better than it has in ages, his sore shoulder not troubling him the way it usually does when he’s stiff from a night of sleep. The headache that he gets sometimes, either from too much wine or from tension in his neck, or both, is completely absent today. But then he notices that David’s side of the bed is empty, and a cold spike of fear shoots through him. Bolting out of bed, Patrick rushes out into the main room of the cabin—

—and finds David in the kitchen making batter for pancakes.

It’s another thing that David hasn’t done as much in the past year, cooking. One too many failures when he forgot an ingredient or a step and he seemed to have decided that cooking wasn’t for him anymore. At least until now.

Patrick’s shoulders drop and he blows out a breath. “You’re making pancakes.”

“Yeah, I thought… I thought it might be nice for breakfast to be ready for you when you woke up.” He looks bashful, like Patrick has caught him doing something embarrassing.

Walking over, Patrick wraps his arms around David and kisses his neck softly. “It’s very nice.”

***

Seventeen years ago

Patrick pulled himself up out of the water and onto the wooden boards of the dock with a grunt. He could feel his long swim as a pleasant ache in his muscles, the heat of the wood starting to burn the bottoms of his feet. He walked up to the cabin, where David was stretched out on a reclining chair in the shade, sunglasses on, and shook himself in his best approximation of a dog.

“Excuse you,” David huffed, snapping his book closed to protect the pages. “I don’t need any of that.”

Patrick threw a leg over the middle of the chair so that he was effectively straddling David. David was in shorts and a t-shirt, long-limbed golden skin on display, and even though they’d indulged in morning sex, vacation was making Patrick feel a tiny bit insatiable. “Are you sure about that?”

Lifting his sunglasses, David let his eyes rake up and down Patrick’s body in frank admiration, his mouth pinched tight as if to keep himself from saying anything.

“You don’t need… anything at all?” Patrick lowered himself, draping his body over his husband.

Dropping his book, David screeched. “Oh my god, you’re freezing!”

“Mm, and you’re warm,” Patrick murmured, tucking his face into David’s neck and mouthing at the skin there.

“I don’t know why I put up with you,” David whined, but it was only a token protest. He wrapped his arms and legs around Patrick, sharing his warmth, letting Patrick get his clothes damp with lake water.

“Because you love me?” Patrick said, moving his head and kissing David’s mouth, deep and dirty.

“Mm, in spite of my better judgment, yes,” David said. Patrick stuck his lower lip out in the approximation of a pout and David kissed him, nipping Patrick’s lip with his teeth.

“I love you, too,” Patrick said, deepening the kiss.

***

“Was the water cold?”

“I wasn’t swimming, David,” Patrick says with a smile as he pulls off his jacket. “I was just sitting at the end of the dock. But yes, it’s cold.”

David nods and turns back to the puzzle pieces he’s sorting on the little card table in front of the fireplace. Patrick is struck by how gorgeous he is in the firelight, the warm light against his complexion highlighting his perfect bone structure underneath. “That’s a good idea,” he says, gesturing to the puzzle. They’ve done large and challenging puzzles at home before, but they always joked to each other that the cabin puzzles probably had half of the pieces missing and they’d never bothered to break any of them out before.

“Yeah, I figured my Swiss cheese brain could probably handle this one,” David says, indicating the colorful picture on the box. It does, in truth, look like an easy puzzle, but Patrick winces at David’s metaphor.

“It’s not like Swiss cheese,” he says softly.

David shrugs, looking unperturbed. “The effect is the same. Speaking of cheese, do we have any? I’m peckish.”

Laughing at that segue in spite of himself, Patrick turns to the kitchen. “Of course I brought cheese,” he calls over his shoulder. He pulls things out of the refrigerator and unwraps the block of gouda and the triple cream and puts them on a plate with some crackers, then sits down with David at the card table.

David abandons the edge pieces he’s arranging and attacks the cheese. “You got triple cream,” he breathes reverently.

Patrick smiles. “It’s your favorite.”

David spreads some on a cracker and puts it in his mouth, moaning in appreciation as he chews. “This isn’t from Warner Farms,” he mumbles around his mouthful of food.

“No, it’s a French cheese I picked up in Elmdale a couple of days ago.”

David gives him a squinty grin, still chewing. “Thank you for doing that.”

“You’re welcome.” Patrick cuts off a small piece of the gouda and pops it in his mouth, looking at the puzzle pieces.

“When you get remarried—”

“David,” he warns. He hates every iteration of this conversation.

“Patrick,” David responds in the same voice, mocking him. “You know my feelings on this.”

Patrick heaves a sigh. “That it would be a waste for me not to spend the remaining decades of my life making someone else as happy as I make you,” Patrick quotes.

“Yes.”

“And you know that I don’t want to entertain that idea. That I may never want to.”

David picks up a puzzle piece and snaps it into place easily. He’s always been able to spot little nuances of shade and color from across the length of a table, picking up pieces and placing them accurately with preternatural skill. A skill he appears to still have, Patrick notes.

“Well, I’m going to haunt you if you take too long after I’m dead to start dating.”

Patrick drops the puzzle piece he just picked up and stands up from the table. “Please don’t,” he whispers. He can’t stomach thinking about a time in the all-to-near future when he’ll be alone. And he can’t stomach imagining the painful decline that’s going to precede it.

David is staring at the puzzle, not moving, his face betraying anger, and Patrick knows he’s fucked up. He knows it helps David to joke about it, and he should accommodate that. Sometimes he just can’t.

He wishes suddenly that he’d invited Stevie on this trip. She’s good for David in that way, matching his gallows humor with darker jokes of her own, the two of them occasionally collapsing in giggles over David’s latest morbid description of what his brain is doing. Maybe she goes home and cries her eyes out over it — probably she does — but she’s much stronger than Patrick is most of the time.

Patrick walks over and kisses David on the top of the head in apology. Before he can say anything, his phone rings. He imagines for a second that Stevie knows somehow that she’s needed, but he looks at the screen and sees that it’s his mother.

“It’s Mom,” Patrick says, clicking to answer it. “Hi, Mom.”

His mother is in her eighties now. She lived on her own for a couple of years after his dad passed away, despite David’s suggestion that she could come live with them. She didn’t want to leave the only home she ever knew, she said. But last year, she moved in with her younger sister Jennifer, and now Patrick doesn’t have to worry so much about her. And in retrospect, he’s relieved she didn’t take David up on his offer. He can’t imagine how he’d be dealing with life if he had both David and his mother to take care of.

She peers at him through the screen. “Where are you? That’s not your house.”

“We’re at the cabin in Muskoka,” Patrick says, swinging the phone around to show her David.

David waves. “Hi, Marcy,” he says softly.

“Hello, my sweet David,” she replies.

“I’ll take this outside,” Patrick murmurs to David, gesturing to the phone. Then to his mother, he says, “What are you and Aunt Jennifer up to today?”

“Well, Jennifer has been knitting and watching television today. And I’ve been making soup.” He closes the door with a quiet click and walks toward the lake. “Boring stuff. Never mind us; how are you and David?”

“We’re fine. Just decided to have a little vacation. Spend some time relaxing.”

“That’s nice. How’s David doing?” she asks, cutting right to the chase.

“He’s fine,” Patrick answers quickly.

Her mouth compresses into a thin line. “Honey.”

He feels petulantly angry. Why, on top of everything else, does he have to be interrogated by his mother? He sighs. “It’s hard for me to talk to you about this,” he says.

“I know that, sweetheart. Don’t think I don’t realize that if it were up to you, I still wouldn’t know about David’s condition.”

He winces, because of course she’s probably not wrong. He might have hidden David’s diagnosis from his mother indefinitely if he could have, but David told her about it last year. The idea that his mother sits there in his aunt’s house, worrying about him, or pitying him, makes Patrick want to crawl out of his skin. He despises that idea. He’s always wanted to protect her from the messy, unhappy parts of his life. He doesn’t want her to worry, or maybe he just doesn’t want to think about her worrying. It’s probably good that he has David to override his impulse to hide things from people he loves.

“So tell me how he is. Really,” she says, and he can see her scrutinizing him through the phone.

“He has good days and bad days. Today is a really good day. On days like today, I can almost forget…” That’s a lie. He can’t get anywhere near forgetting. He stares out at the water, willing himself not to cry. “But on other days, he forgets stuff. He… you know. He gets confused.”

“And how are you?”

He feels a swell of tears threatening to spill over, and Patrick attempts to ruthlessly swallow them down. “I… I just want to make him as happy as I can with… with the time we have left,” he chokes out.

“Oh, sweetheart.” Her sympathetic tone kind of makes him want to throw his phone into the water. “You’ve given him a lifetime of happiness. Don’t ever doubt that.”

Patrick shakes his head. “Not a lifetime. Far from a lifetime.” He gives up on not crying — it’s a hopeless battle. “We don’t get to have a lifetime.”

“I wish I could give you a big hug right now, my sweet boy,” she says, her motherly protectiveness coming across through the screen.

Patrick sort of laughs. “Yeah, me too.” He swipes at his eyes with his free hand. “He keeps talking about me remarrying after. I think it makes him feel better, saying stuff like that out loud. Facing it. Naming it.” He hiccups into a sob. “But I can’t imagine how I would ever do that.”

“Of course you can’t. Not now.” She sighs. “I used to feel that way too.”

Patrick raises his eyebrows. “Mom, is there something you need to tell me?” It’s a chance to get the topic off himself, and he grabs it with both hands. “Do you have a boyfriend?” he says with a smile even as he can feel the tears drying on his cheeks.

She scoffs. “No. But it is something I can imagine now. I lost the love of my life, but it doesn’t hurt like it used to. If the opportunity came along, I might be able to fall in love again.” She laughs. “On the other hand, men are a lot of trouble so I probably won’t bother.”

He laughs again, terribly grateful for his mother all of a sudden, and he realizes he should tell her that, because he probably doesn’t have that many years left with her either. “I’m really glad you called, Mom.”

“You can call me anytime, sweetheart. Okay?”

“Okay.”

After they end the call, Patrick spends a few minutes watching the still surface of the lake before the frigid air drives him back up to the house.

“Was the water cold?” David asks him when he slips inside, his face clear of any unhappiness.

Maybe David doesn’t remember that he was on the phone with his mother. Maybe he doesn’t remember the fight they almost had. Maybe in David’s mind, it’s like he never came into the house the first time at all. Patrick plasters on a fake smile.

“Yeah, very cold,” he answers, and holds out his arms. “Can you give me a hug and warm me up?”

David rises from his seat next to the fire and wraps his arms around Patrick. Patrick presses his nose against the shoulder of David’s soft sweater and closes his eyes and breathes him in.

***

Eighteen months ago

Shrishti stuck her head behind the curtain. “Do we have any more of that oatmeal face scrub? Inventory says we should have a couple more boxes, but I can’t find them.”

Patrick looked up from his computer. “Oh, yeah. No, there was a problem with the last batch, and I forgot to adjust the count in the inventory. Veronica is supposed to be shipping us a replacement batch tomorrow.” He tabbed over to the inventory spreadsheet and corrected his error. “Sorry about that.”

“No worries.” She glanced at her watch. “I’m surprised David isn’t back yet.”

Patrick smiled. “He always spends way too much time at Warner Farms gossiping with Heather and sampling cheese. I wouldn’t count on him being back for at least another hour.”

“Gotcha. Well, I’ve got all tomorrow’s shipments ready to go except for the face scrub ones. If the replacements come with the morning mail, I can probably get them into the boxes and ready for pick-up before noon.” Shrishti had only been working for them for a couple of months, and already she was his favorite of any of the employees they’d ever had. Meticulous and detail-oriented, she already had their online order fulfillment more organized than it had ever been.

“Thanks, Shrishti. David will be relieved that the screw-up didn’t delay any orders.” He gave her a warm smile before turning back to the sales projections he was working on.

When his phone rang an hour later, Patrick looked at the screen and assumed David had gotten some juicy gossip that he couldn’t wait to share. “Hey, babe,” he answered.

“Patrick, I… I think I need your help.”

Jumping to his feet at the frightened tone in David’s voice, Patrick grabbed for his jacket. “What happened? Are you okay?” Is your car okay? he also thought but didn’t ask.

“I… got lost? I can’t remember how to get back to the store.”

Patrick put the keys he’d just picked up back down on the desk. “What? From Warner Farms?” That didn’t make any sense. David had probably made that drive a hundred times if he’d made it once.

David made a frustrated noise. “I think I turned the wrong way and now I don’t know where I am.”

That was still weird, but Patrick supposed he could imagine David being engrossed in an audiobook or something and making a wrong turn. He didn’t have the best sense of direction, and it wouldn’t be the craziest thing he’d ever done. “Okay, so just put the store into your maps app and let the GPS guide you back.”

“It’s not… my phone’s not working right. I don’t know.”

Patrick was getting annoyed now. David had come a long way from the pampered socialite who lacked basic life skills. “You’re talking to me on your phone.”

“Can you just come find me, please?” And he sounded so unlike himself, his voice trembling, that all of Patrick’s annoyance evaporated.

“Yeah, David. Just hang on.” He checked David’s location on his own phone. “I can get to you in about twenty minutes.”

Without telling her any details, Patrick told Shrishti that something had come up and ensured she could take care of closing up. That done, he rushed out to his car. The drive went by in a blur of worry and increasingly paranoid imaginings. Had David forgotten to eat? Maybe his blood sugar was low. Or had he tried to drive under the influence of something? Alcohol? Pills? Was he in the middle of a slow but deadly brain aneurysm? By the time he found David’s car, parked along the side of one of the nondescript country roads that spidered across Elm County, he’d worked himself up to imagining David slumped over dead in the driver’s seat. Patrick pulled up behind the other car and approached, his heart hammering in his chest.

“David?” David was sitting behind the wheel of the car, sunglasses on. Patrick didn’t like not being able to see his eyes, not right now. “What happened?”

David glanced at him before looking back toward the windshield. “Can I just follow you to the store?”

“Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”

“I’m fine, I just need to follow you,” David said, his voice flat.

“Can I also set your navigation, just in case?”

David handed his phone unlocked to Patrick. Patrick put in the address of their house and started the route and then handed the phone back. “Shrishti is going to lock up the store. Let’s go home, okay?”

Nodding, David pushed the button to start his car.

“I’ll pull out first and you follow me,” Patrick said. David nodded again.

Not knowing what else to do, Patrick went back to his car. He drove carefully, at the speed limit, checking his rearview mirror constantly to make sure David was still there. His brain was manic and staticky the whole time, and he still couldn’t banish that mental picture of David collapsed over the steering wheel, even while he was looking at the man himself driving the car behind him. It felt like an eternity before they arrived at their house, and they were both quiet as Patrick unlocked the door and they went inside.

“Do you want me to get you a glass of water?” Patrick asked.

“I think I need to see a doctor about this,” David said, ignoring the question. He’d stopped just inside the front door, frozen, like his feet were rooted to the floor.

Patrick nodded. “Yeah, that… that makes sense.”

“I got totally lost on roads I should know well. I couldn’t remember how to get the navigation on my phone to work.” David’s eyes were wide with fear.

He wanted to justify, to come up with reasons that what happened wasn’t scary. David was tired, or distracted, or he only got this phone a few months ago and wasn’t used to the interface yet. Those were possibilities. But then Patrick thought about all the times recently when David had forgotten something, or lost something, and together it painted a pretty terrifying picture.

Pulling David into his arms, he resisted the urge to placate, to say he was sure it was fine. “We’ll call your doctor first thing in the morning, okay?”

It took a few days to get an appointment with David’s GP, and another two weeks after that to see the neurologist they were referred to, so by the time Patrick found himself loitering in the waiting room of an unfamiliar doctor’s office while David underwent tests, Patrick thought he had prepared himself for anything.

Then the neurologist said, “Several of your symptoms are consistent with early-onset dementia, Mr. Rose,” and Patrick realized he wasn’t prepared at all.

“I’m going to order a follow-up MRI although to be honest, depending on the progression of the disease, it may not tell us much. And we’ll want to assess you every few months to see how quickly things are moving.”

“What…” Patrick squeezed David’s hand and swallowed. “What does that mean?”

“Dementia can progress at different rates in different people. And whether or not it’s Alzheimer’s, which the MRI may give us a clue to, will also dictate the progression of the disease.”

David opened his mouth and closed it a few times. “I’m only fifty-six!” he finally shouted, and Patrick took some comfort in how indignant he sounded. There was the David he knew. Although, he refrained from pointing out, David was fifty-seven.

“That’s why we call it ‘early-onset’,” the neurologist said. “I know how challenging this can be to hear and to process.” He produced a business card and handed it to Patrick, along with some pamphlets. “You can feel free to call me with any questions you have. Either of you.”

“Tell me what the worst case scenario is,” David said. Patrick opened his mouth to argue — he wasn’t sure David hearing the doctor’s answer to that was the best idea. But he didn’t speak quickly enough.

“Again, the MRI will help us chart your course a little bit more accurately. But worst case scenario, in a couple of years we may see a significant decline in brain function.”

Patrick felt dizzy, like he might collapse or start crying hysterically at any moment, but he also knew he had to hold it together for David. He switched David’s hand from his left one to his right so that he could wrap his left arm around David’s shoulder. “That’s just a worst case scenario,” Patrick murmured to his strangely unreactive husband. “We don’t really know anything yet.”

David nodded and didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything while Patrick arranged the appointment to come back for the MRI, and he didn’t say anything while Patrick took care of the paperwork for their visit, and he didn’t say anything while they got into the car. He just stared out the passenger window of the car while Patrick tried desperately to think of something to say that would make things better.

“Do you want me to order some pizza for dinner?” Patrick finally said as they passed the town sign.

David shrugged. “I guess.”

He reached over and took David’s hand, and was a little bit heartened when David squeezed his fingers.

When Patrick turned off the car, David continued to look out the window, still squeezing Patrick’s hand. “Ready to go into the house, sweetheart?” Patrick asked.

“I’m sorry,” David said in a choked voice.

“Sorry for what? You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

David shook his head, denying this. “It’s probably because of the drugs I did when I was young.”

“No, it isn’t. I promise that this isn’t your fault.”

“It’s going to ruin your life, though. You’re going to have to…” — his voice hitched, and he finally turned to look at Patrick — “have to watch me turn into a vegetable right in front of your eyes.”

Patrick swallowed around a lump in his throat, and took David’s face in his hands. “Right now, I’m going to curl up on the sofa and eat pizza and watch a movie of my husband’s choosing with him, because there’s nothing I love more in the world than holding him in my arms. For the rest of today, that’s the only thing we have to think about. The rest of it can wait until tomorrow. Okay?”

David nodded, tears spilling over onto his cheeks. “Yeah. Okay.”

***

Patrick wakes up and fumbles for his phone to look at the time. “Morning,” David says as Patrick squints at the screen.

Patrick rolls over and smiles at his husband. “You’re awake early.”

David huffs. “I know, and I’m very annoyed about it. I’ve been trying to go back to sleep for a while.” He pauses and then grins. “Although now that you’re awake, things are looking up.” Shifting toward him, David brings his hand up from beneath the covers to caress Patrick’s shoulder.

Patrick leans in and gives David a smacking kiss on the cheek before he whips the covers out of the way and stands up. “I was thinking about going for a run. Will, um, will you be okay here alone?”

David narrows his eyes. “I’m not an infant. Yes, I’ll be fine.”

“Okay.” Patrick moves toward the wardrobe and then turns back. “Don’t try to use the fireplace.”

“Please. I didn’t even touch firewood when I was young and in full possession of my faculties,” David says, which makes Patrick chuckle. He goes back over to the bed to kiss David’s cheek again.

“I’ll start the coffee before I leave.”

David hums happily in response to that, picking up his phone to thumb through while Patrick gets ready for his run.

The roads around the lake are a mix of paved and unpaved, the landscape flat and somewhat dull. It’s easy to push himself, and he runs past one small vacation cottage with a cutesy name after another, remembering driving David here the first time, the way he winced and tried not to grimace too much as they got close to their rental. It was the first time Patrick had planned a vacation for them all on his own without any of David’s input, and in retrospect it was a miracle David had ever allowed such a thing. He wonders, not for the first time, if he’ll ever see this place again after they drive away in a few days.

He’s turned around and is more than halfway back to their cabin when the music in his ears is interrupted by his phone ringing. He taps his ear to answer, slowing to a rapid walk. “Hello?”

“Hey, Patrick.”

“Hi, Alexis. Sorry if I sound out of breath — I’m out for a run.”

“Ooh, good job on meeting those fitness goals.” He imagines she would probably boop him on the nose if she was standing next to him.

“What’s up?” Patrick asks, slowing his walking pace a little more.

“Nothing’s up; I’m just calling to see how things are going.”

“Um, David and I are taking a few days away for a little vacation. We came out to that cabin in Muskoka we like to rent.”

“Aww, that’s so nice,” she says. There’s a pregnant pause.

“Did you need something?”

“No. No, just calling to say ‘hey’.” Silence again.

Patrick’s had a few conversations like this with Alexis over the past several months. She calls like she has something to tell him, but they just end up exchanging small talk about their lives and then hanging up. And that isn’t the only thing he’s noticed about Alexis’s recent patterns of communication. “You know, you could call David,” Patrick says. It’s not like Patrick and Alexis aren’t close, but she’s been calling him lately instead of her own brother.

“I will,” she says, and he can see her fidgeting with her hair in his mind’s eye.

“Alexis.”

“What? I will.” He waits through another pause. “He’s harder to talk to now, is all,” she says more gently.

“Yeah, he can get kind of caught in a repetitive loop sometimes. And when he forgets a word, it’s better not to—”

“It’s not that.” She heaves a sigh. “The last time I talked to him, there was a minute where he didn’t realize Mom and Dad were gone.”

Patrick stops walking and squeezes his eyes shut. “Yeah. That happens sometimes.”

“It was just really… I don’t know how to deal with it.”

“The experts say it can be better to play along.” He starts walking again, the cabin around the next bend in the road. “Rather than breaking sad news to him over and over again, it’s better with a dementia patient to sort of… roleplay in the world they’re existing in. If in that moment he thinks your parents are alive, talk to him like they are. It’s kinder.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve read the stuff you sent me.” She sighs again. “Doesn’t make it less painful for me though. They were my parents too.”

Patrick frowns. “I’m sorry. I know it’s hard.”

She makes a frustrated noise. “No, I’m being selfish. It’s way harder for you than it is for me, obviously. If you need me to do anything—”

“I don’t. I’ve got it under control.” He sees the cabin up ahead and speeds up his gait.

“But if you reach a point where you don’t have it under control… I can take some time away. I can come up there and help for a while.”

Patrick feels tears prickling behind his eyes, and he blinks. He knows that wouldn’t be easy for Alexis to do, either professionally or personally, and yet he has no doubt that she would do it if he asked. “Thanks, Alexis. I’ll keep that in mind.”

David is still asleep when Patrick gets inside. He kisses David’s cheek and goes to shower, then gets started on breakfast.

Another day passes them by quietly: David works on the jigsaw puzzle and Patrick reads and occasionally joins in on the puzzle to the degree that his interest in it allows. He makes lunch. He has conversations with David that they’ve had a hundred times before. He spends some time sitting on the dock, soaking in the natural stillness. Summer months at the cabin are sometimes marred by the noise of speedboats and jetskis, but today he can almost imagine that he and David are the only two people in the world.

When they get ready to go to bed, Patrick can tell by the stoop of David’s shoulders, by a certain dullness in his eyes, that he’s particularly tired.

“Do you want some help with your skin care tonight?” Patrick asks, keeping his voice light, like the answer doesn’t matter to him.

David sees through it anyway. “You think I’m not going to be able to remember what step I’m on tonight?”

Patrick shrugs. “I know how frustrated you get when you accidentally put your expensive eye cream on before the toner.”

He’s rewarded with one of David’s little tucked-in smiles at that, after which David huffs performatively. “Okay, fine. I guess you can help.”

They crowd into the small bathroom together. While David washes his face, Patrick rests a hand on his back, feeling the curve of his spine through his sweater. As David pats his face dry with a towel, he meets Patrick’s eyes in the mirror. “How do you want to do this?”

Patrick takes David by the shoulders and turns him. There isn’t enough space for David to sit on the counter so he leans against it, lowering his face enough so that Patrick can see what he’s doing. Reaching around and picking up the hydrating lotion, Patrick holds it up to David. “This first, right?” David nods.

David has spent a lot of their marriage bemoaning the creases on his face. The dimples that have deepened and lengthened, and the laugh lines that spider out from the corners of his eyes. Those particularly annoy him, and no amount of praise that Patrick piles on has ever made a dent in David’s annoyance. Looking at the laugh lines now as he carefully applies the lotion, Patrick sees the shape of angel’s wings in them. It sounds like a line from a song that he should write someday.

Patrick holds each little bottle or tube up for David’s approval even though he’s got David’s skin care routine memorized after so many years and so many lectures on the topic. When he comes to the eye serum, he applies it with the lightest of finger touches to the delicate skin. It’s almost papery, that skin underneath his eyes, much more so than the first time he did this for David, when their relationship was brand new and Patrick couldn’t stop the rapid hammering of his heart anytime their bodies drew close together. Long before he knew David’s body as well as his own.

“What are you going to do when the day comes that I really can’t do this for myself anymore?” David asks as Patrick screws the cap on the eye serum and moves on to the night cream.

Patrick blinks at him. “I’m going to do it for you every night.”

David shakes his head but doesn’t say anything else.

***

Fourteen months ago

The drive back from Elmdale was once again silent.

“None of these appointments are ever good news, are they?” David said.

They had the result of David’s second MRI, three months after his first MRI. Two data points between which you could draw a line, and Patrick could see the graph in his mind’s eye as he drove. He kept extrapolating that line, and it collided with the x-axis way too soon. Way before he was ready for it.

Patrick cleared his throat. “The neurologist confirmed what we thought, though. That the Razadyne is helping with some of the symptoms. That’s good news.”

“Yeah,” David said, but he didn’t sound like he believed it.

Patrick looked at the way the sun lit up the trees as they drove past. It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny, the kind of late summer day that made him think of baseball and lemonade and the loamy smell of his vegetable garden at home. The feeling of earth between his fingers. He wondered if next year, he’d even have time for a garden. How bad off would David be by then? Maybe this would be the last good summer they’d have together. He berated himself for not savoring it more.

“You should put me in a home when it starts to get bad,” David said suddenly.

“David.”

“I don’t want you turning into my nurse. I don’t want you feeding me and dressing me and wiping my ass.” He sounded detached, like he was talking in hypotheticals and not about his own fate. “I’m just going to wither away and at some point, there won’t be any of me left. The person you love will be dead and it will just be this body left for you to take care of.”

“Can we…” Patrick gripped the steering wheel tight, a panicky feeling in his chest. “I know this is something we’re going to have to talk about but can we not? Right now?”

David turned his head to look out of the passenger window and didn’t respond.

Patrick spent much of that afternoon reading the pamphlets and websites that he’d so far mostly been avoiding about the progression of Alzheimer’s and about what he might have to do as a caretaker, so when it was time for dinner, the last thing he felt like doing was eating. But he dutifully went into the kitchen and warmed up the leftover chicken and roasted potatoes from the night before. They ate while looking at their phones instead of each other, and Patrick felt a little bit like a canyon was widening between them.

While Patrick was brushing his teeth, David began washing his face, the first step in his evening skin care routine, and Patrick didn’t think anything of it. But fifteen minutes later, Patrick looked up from the book he was reading and through the bathroom doorway to see David washing his face again — presumably washing away all of the lotions and serums that he’d just painstakingly applied.

Patrick got up and approached. “Whatcha doing, babe?”

David turned around and frowned at him. “I’m doing my skin care. You’ve literally seen me do this thousands of times.”

“Yeah, but it seems like you started over.” Patrick wondered if maybe the stress of the day left David more frazzled than normal, or if someday he would look back on this as a signpost along the road of David’s decline.

Looking at the tubes and bottles arrayed in front of him, David grimaced. “Fuck!”

“Do you want some help?” Patrick asked.

“No, I’ve got it,” David said through clenched teeth.

Patrick’s eyes strayed over to the medicine cabinet, where David’s prescription pill bottle was. David’s habit was to take his medication right after breakfast, but when Patrick had asked if he didn’t just want to leave the bottle on the kitchen table, David had rolled his eyes and said that there was a reason the medicine cabinet was called the medicine cabinet. Patrick reached out, opening the mirrored door and taking the bottle out.

“What are you doing?” David asked, pausing in his application of hydrating lotion.

“I’m going to get one of those days of the week pill things for these. Just in case.”

“Just in case what?” David said with a rotating head movement to emphasize his point.

“Just so that we don’t lose track of whether you’ve taken one each morning,” Patrick said. “That way we’ll be sure.”

“Oh, I see. So I’m not an adult anymore, and you’re going to dole out my medicine to me like you’re my nanny.” David slammed his tube of moisturizer down on the edge of the sink.

Patrick boiled over. “David, you’re doing your skin care routine twice because you forgot you’d already started! It’s not unreasonable—”

“Can you please leave me in peace? I can’t think when you’re yelling at me!” David shouted. “Or do you need to supervise me in the bathroom too?”

He wasn’t able to resist slamming the door on his way out of the room. Patrick stood on the other side of the door, breath coming fast, anger rolling through him. Here he was trying to help, and all David could do was snark at him and then fly into a rage, he seethed. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t…

It wasn’t like him.

Of course he was angry. Life had dealt him a terrible hand to play, and he was just trying to get through it with some shred of dignity intact. That was what it was. David was ashamed. And Patrick knew that in David’s place, he would be too. He’d be worse probably, faced with becoming a burden to his partner. How could he blame David for not being able to deal sometimes?

Patrick got back into bed, but didn’t bother to pick up his book. Both of them were angry at the situation, this terrible situation, and there was no one to turn that anger on except each other. They needed coping mechanisms or this was going to keep happening. As Patrick had to take over more and more tasks that made up their partnership, both professional and personal. As their marriage evolved to make room for this disease.

When David finally emerged, Patrick tried to put all of his regret on his face. “I’m sorry, David.”

David got under the covers on his side of the bed, maintaining a little bit of distance between their bodies. “I’m sorry too,” he said, although he didn’t really sound like he meant it.

“Maybe we should see a counselor,” Patrick suggested. “Either separately or… or together.”

David sighed, turning his back on Patrick. “Maybe. We can talk about it tomorrow.”

The next day, though, they didn’t talk about it. Patrick got up alone at his usual time to open the store, and David came in at 10:30. While David worked the floor with Shrishti, Patrick stayed in the back and focused on the books, so they didn’t really even talk until near closing time.

“Stevie’s back in town, so I invited her over for dinner,” David said as he came into the back and pulled a box off the shelf to do some re-stocking out front.

“Oh,” Patrick said, trying to hide his disappointment. If Stevie was there, then they couldn’t talk about last night, or the future, or anything substantive… which, he assumed, was the point. On the other hand, David probably needed some time with Stevie right now. “Okay.”

Sure enough, it didn’t take long after Stevie arrived for her and David to be giggling over glasses of wine. They had strong opinions about a new show they were both watching, and it cheered Patrick to hear them talking about it, even if he didn’t understand the conversation. He also felt a seed of jealousy that Stevie could make David happy in a way that Patrick seemed unable to recently. Patrick tried not to let that jealousy grow, tried to smother it before it overtook him.

They were halfway through their meals when David turned to Stevie and said, “Enjoy this now, Stevie. In two years, I probably won’t know who you are.”

She looked up from her plate, alarmed. “What did the neurologist say, exactly?”

“And another year or two after that, it won’t matter because I probably won’t be able to speak. Or feed myself.” He said it without much emotion, almost deadpan, like he was telling her the latest town gossip from Ray.

Stevie’s eyes darted to Patrick, then back to David. “Are you being fucking serious right now?”

“They don’t know that for sure, David,” Patrick said helplessly.

“At that point, it’ll be a matter of keeping me alive with machines or letting me die. I prefer the latter, but Patrick and I haven’t worked out the details yet. There’s…” He waved his hand, airily. “Documents we have to sign.”

Taking a swig from her wine glass, Stevie met Patrick’s eyes.

“They did another MRI,” Patrick said softly, picking up his own wine glass. He suddenly felt the desire to get really, properly drunk.

“Apparently the plaques in my brain are ‘measurably worse’ than they were three months ago.” He made air quotes. “So. That’s fun.”

Stevie reached out and put her hand over David’s. “I’m so… that fucking sucks, David.”

“It really does. It fucking sucks.” He sipped his wine.

“You might even say it sucks balls,” Patrick added, and then laughed in spite of himself. David threw back his head and barked out a laugh of his own. By the time Stevie joined in, the laughter had turned manic and uncontrolled. David reached over and squeezed Patrick’s hand, and Patrick squeezed back.

Getting himself marginally under control, David added, “All that to say, Stevie, if you need any advice from me on any of the topics I’m an expert on: fashion, aesthetics, marriage, running a small business in rural Ontario… you might want to ask me now before my brain melts and runs out of my ears.”

Stevie stopped laughing. “Uh, yeah. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I’m opening another bottle of wine,” David announced, standing up dramatically.

Patrick took the opportunity to change the subject, asking Stevie about her latest stint in New York. She eyed him warily but answered his question.

Stevie caught him later coming out of the bathroom, cornering him before he could come back to the living room where they were all watching television together. Patrick had just been thinking that it was always when he went to the bathroom that he realized how drunk he really was. Tonight, he was definitely on his way to being really drunk. “How are you holding up?” Stevie asked.

“I’m drunk,” Patrick answered, because that’s where his mind was.

“No shit.” She put a hand on his shoulder, looking him in the eyes. “I’m talking about David.”

“Right now I’m avoiding thinking about it by, as I mentioned, getting drunk. Tomorrow I’ll probably go back to obsessively reading articles about early-onset Alzheimer’s on the internet and planning for the worst.”

“I’m here for you, you know. If you need to talk about it,” Stevie said.

Patrick sighed. “I’ll take you up on that at some point. I’m just… I don’t know if I’m ready to talk.” She continued to pin him down with her gaze, and more words started to spill out almost against his will. “I think I was hoping until yesterday that they’d made a mistake. That they’d look at his second MRI and realize that…” He swiped at his cheek, frustrated that he was crying suddenly. That’s what he’d been trying to avoid tonight — feeling emotions. “That they’d realize that they made a mistake and there’s nothing actually wrong with him. But that’s not what happened. He’s…” A sob hitched in his throat, and he hoped that the noise from the TV was covering up the sounds he was making so that David wouldn’t hear. “He’s dying, Stevie. I’m gonna lose him. Slowly and painfully.”

Her own eyes watery, Stevie pulled him into a fierce, tight hug. “I’m so sorry.” Then she pulled away and fixed him with a fierce look. “We’ll get through this, okay? You and me. By leaning on each other.”

Patrick nodded, overwhelmed with gratitude for her. “Okay.”

They pulled themselves together as much as they could before rejoining David, and if he noticed anything wrong, he didn’t mention it. It wasn’t until Stevie had collapsed in the guest room and he and Patrick had fallen drunkenly into bed themselves that David brought the topic up again.

“Can you tell?” David whispered into the darkness. “That it’s gotten worse?”

Patrick shook his head. “Not yet.” Sometimes, he thought, maybe he could. But the medication was helping, and some days were better than others. It was honestly hard to tell.

“What if I wake up one day and I don’t even know who you are?”

Patrick closed his eyes, trying not to keep his voice even. “Then I’ll tell you I’m your very handsome husband, and you’ll be amazed that you managed to score such a sexy life partner.”

David laughed a little at that, and Patrick held the sound of his laugh, a rarity these days, close to his heart.

***

“That’s what I’m saying, Stevie,” echoes David’s voice as Patrick opens the front door to the cabin. He’s loaded down with grocery bags, and he struggles to get the door closed before emerging from the foyer. “Yes, I’m sure,” David continues. “We haven’t—”

David stops talking into his phone the second Patrick is within view.

“Hi, honey. How was the grocery store?” This is directed at him, obviously, so Patrick answers.

“Fine.”

“Mm hm. Mm hm,” David continues into the phone. Patrick opens the refrigerator and starts unloading things into it. “Yes, okay fine. I will. I will.” Then David laughs, loud and long. “Okay. Love you, bye.” Patrick hears David put his phone down and his footsteps approaching.

“How’s Stevie?” Patrick asks, eyes still on the groceries.

“She’s good.”

“That’s good.” He puts a box of pasta in the cabinet and sort of slams the door. Closes it too forcefully, anyway.

“Whoa. What’s wrong?” David asks.

Patrick shoots him a guilty look. “Nothing, sorry.” And then something inspires him to be honest. “I guess I’m jealous of Stevie sometimes because she can still make you laugh and with me you… mostly don’t anymore.” He winces. “It’s my problem, don’t worry about it. I’m glad you have her.”

“If it makes you feel better, I’m mostly laughing because Stevie is a disaster of a human being,” David says, taking tentative steps until he’s standing in Patrick’s space. “Besides, you get to do other things to me that Stevie does not.” He shimmies, his hands settling on Patrick’s shoulders.

“Uh huh.” Patrick puts his hands on David’s hips and shifts him out of the way so that he can open another cabinet and put away a box of cereal. “I got the fixings for that tofu with soba noodles you liked. Is that okay to have for dinner tonight?”

“Sure.” David moves around to the other side of the little breakfast bar from Patrick, watching silently as he organizes things and starts to prep the ingredients.

“I have noticed, by the way,” David finally says, his eyes trained on Patrick’s hands where he’s chopping an onion. “You aren’t being as subtle as you think you are.”

“Noticed what?” Patrick says. The knife isn’t as sharp as his own at home, and he presses down harder with each slice. The result is a medium dice when he wanted small, and he frowns at the messy onion pieces.

“That you aren’t having sex with me.”

Patrick’s heart plummets, and he sets the knife down slowly before raising his eyes to meet David’s.

***

Two weeks ago

Patrick got home from the store Saturday evening to find his husband in a very flirty mood.

“I ordered from that new restaurant in Elm Glen for dinner,” David said, putting a glass of wine in Patrick’s hand and a lingering kiss on his cheek. Glancing over, Patrick could see that a third of the bottle was already gone.

“The Portugese one?”

David snapped his fingers. “Portugese, that’s the word. Yeah, that one.”

“Don’t get too attached: I don’t think that place is going to stay in business very long,” Patrick said, but he was happy not to have to cook, and he was happy that he had the day off the next day.

“Well, I’m not going to be ‘staying in business’ for very long either,” David said, “and if it does go out of business I’ll probably just forget it ever existed.”

Patrick ignored David’s dark joke, taking a large drink from his wine glass. “Anyway. Speaking of the business, can I run something by you about the apple butter and jams display?” He pulled out his phone to show David a picture, and David, as always, had good ideas about how to rearrange the products to best show them off.

It was a good night. They laughed like old times, and the food from the Portugese place really was delicious; it was a shame it wasn’t more popular. Face flushed from the wine, he told David a funny story he’d heard from Roland Junior’s boyfriend, and listened with amusement as David told him about the acrobatic attempts of the neighborhood squirrels’ attempts to reach their bird feeder.

“That squirrel is diabolical,” David muttered.

“I don’t think it’s just one squirrel, David.”

“It’s one squirrel. He’s an utter menace.”

They gave up on arguing about squirrels to make out on the sofa, and not long after that they decided to move things to the bedroom. Sex on couches was for young men, not distinguished, middle-aged gentlemen such as themselves, David had said once.

The foreplay was quick and harsh, rougher than they’d been with each other for a while, both of them a little sloppy and wild. David pulled himself up onto his hands and knees, and Patrick prepped him quickly with his favorite toy before pulling it out thrusting inside. It felt fantastic, and Patrick lost himself to it, closing his eyes and thrusting hard, taking his pleasure the way he had hundreds of times over their years together. The way David had always loved for him to.

When David started to whine, Patrick thought it was out of pleasure at first, but after a couple of seconds it struck him with a cold shock of fear that David sounded like he was in distress.

Patrick stopped moving, his hands still holding onto David’s hips. “You okay, David?”

“No no no no stop,” David keened. “Stop.”

Pulling out as quickly as he dared, Patrick put a hand on David’s spine. “What is it, did I hurt you?”

David jerked away from his touch, collapsing and curling up into a ball near the head of the bed. “I said no,” he whispered. “You heard me say no.”

“I didn’t… David, what is it?” Patrick leaned over close to peer into David’s face. “Sweetheart?”

David looked at him, wide-eyed and unknowing.

“Sweetheart, it’s Patrick.”

David shook his head and his eyes cleared of confusion. “Patrick… Sorry, what…”

Patrick curled himself around David, pulling the blankets up to cover them both. “I’m so sorry, baby. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

David craned his neck around to try to look at Patrick. “You didn’t hurt me. I’m not hurt.” He frowned, thinking. “I had a weird flashback. Thought you were someone else for a second,” David said with another shake of his head.

Shivering, Patrick hugged David tighter.

***

“Look, David…” Patrick shoves his hands in his pockets; a life-long nervous habit. “What happened last time, it made me skittish.”

“Patrick, that was a fluke. A one-time thing. It probably didn’t even have anything to do with my condition.”

Patrick raises a skeptical eyebrow.

“Okay, maybe it was because of my condition, but I don’t think we need to blow our entire sex life up over it,” David argues, hands flailing. Then he stops, and his face changes. “I mean, unless you… don’t want to anymore. Don’t want me.”

“No! No, I just… need to figure out how to navigate it now.” He abandons his cooking entirely and comes around the counter to take David’s hands in his and look into his eyes. “I need to be comfortable that you’re okay with what’s happening between us. That you… consent to it.”

David rolls his eyes. “We’ve been married for over twenty years. You can assume consent.”

Patrick shakes his head. He’s not going to let David divert him from this. “I can’t. David, we both know that a time is going to come where you aren’t going to be able to really consent anymore, even if you’re still physically capable.”

“Ugh, I don’t want to talk about this,” David says, pulling away and turning toward the fireplace.

“That’s my line.” Patrick says with an ironic smile.

“Okay, fine.” David crosses his arms and huffs. “When our sex life is over, you should go get your needs met elsewhere.”

“David—”

“What, you get to talk about your thing but I don’t get to talk about my thing?”

“I haven’t really gotten to talk about my thing yet,” Patrick counters.

“Fine, whatever.” David puts on a pensive expression. “I think there are… things we can do to make it work for now. Maintain eye contact. Talk to each other throughout.”

“Talking during sex has never been a problem for us,” Patrick grins, and then adds, “And we should probably only have sex when we’re sober.”

“Exactly. So if we do that, and we avoid… any position where I can’t see your face, then I don’t think there’s going to be an issue like what happened last time again. Until I get worse.”

Patrick approaches his husband, putting his arms around him. “Okay, David.”

“Is that ‘okay, David’ like, you’re humoring me?”

“No, it’s ‘okay, David’ like I agree with your plan.” He squeezes around David’s middle.

“Now can we talk about my thing?” David asks.

“David, I’m not going to promise to go get my needs met elsewhere.”

David pulls away again, throwing his hands up in frustration. “Do you not realize that every single day, I feel guilty that I’ve trapped you with me? I’m slowly sinking beneath the ocean, and because we’re handcuffed together, you’re sinking along with me. Why do you think it’s sometimes easier for me to talk to Stevie? She’s not burdened with me in the same way you are.”

“It’s not a—”

“It would really help me to know that you’re going to be able to find some measure of happiness without me,” David interrupts, frustrated.

“And I’m not ready to face that yet. Forgive me for being too in love with you still,” Patrick says.

“Sex can just be sex, Patrick. It doesn’t have to be about love.”

“David, even when we were young and having the occasional threesome, even that was about how much I love you.” Patrick rubs his hands over his face. “It was always about you.”

“So… so then make it about me. About how much better I’ll feel if I know you’re getting some pleasure and some satisfaction when I’m not able to give you that anymore.”

Patrick tries to suppress a smile, and it makes his face twitch. “You know, it’s kind of annoying that your inconsistent brain is making such a cogent argument right now.”

David mock gasps, kind of smiling too. “Patrick Brewer. Is that a dark joke about my condition?”

Patrick goes over and hugs David again. “You’re rubbing off on me.”

He feels the chuckle rumble through David’s chest. “Not yet I’m not, but give me time.” And then David thrusts forward.

Feeling a flash of arousal, suddenly aware that two weeks have gone by with no sex, Patrick looks guiltily back at the kitchen. “I should—”

“I’m not that hungry,” David says, leaning over to graze his teeth over Patrick’s neck. “We can do dinner after.”

They fumble their way to the bedroom, both of them giggling as they pull off items of clothing and leave them on the floor before tumbling into bed. Patrick ends up on top, looking down into his husband’s face. “This okay?”

David nods.

“Can you use words, baby?”

“Yeah, Patrick. It’s… I’ve missed your body.”

Patrick leans over and kisses him, sliding a leg between both of David’s, grinding against him and making them both groan.

“God, I’m gonna come in twenty seconds like a teenager,” David says, reaching a flailing hand toward the bedside table. It occurs to Patrick that David must’ve stashed lube there at the beginning of the week, and so far it has gone unused. Patrick lunges over and gets the lube, making everything between them slick before pressing against David again and thrusting with intent and precision.

He starts to get a good rhythm going, maintaining eye contact with David, not letting David forget who he is. Who they are to each other. What they can do to each other. David must read some of that in his eyes, because he murmurs, “I’m with you, Patrick. I love you.”

“Love you, too.” He keeps up his relentless rhythm. “I’m so close.”

“Don’t stop, me too, fuck,” David gasps. Patrick presses his forehead against David’s as they both spill between their bodies, panting into each others’ mouths. Their gasps devolve into laughter as Patrick pulls away and flops onto his back.

“Yeah, that didn’t take long,” Patrick says.

David is still laughing. “No, it didn’t.”

Patrick heaves himself out of bed to fetch a washcloth to clean them up. “I should get back to making dinner,” he says as David pulls him down into his arms.

“Lie here with me for a minute,” David says, so Patrick rests his head on David’s chest, his black and gray chest hair soft against Patrick’s cheek.

“Maybe I’ll forget everything except you,” David says in a musing tone of voice after a few minutes of comfortable silence. “You’ve been the best thing in my life for so long, maybe the grooves you’ve carved are too deep to ever wear away.”

Patrick turns his face and kisses David’s chest. “Maybe so.” They lie in silence for several more minutes, and Patrick starts to think David has fallen asleep when he speaks again.

“I was thinking about Christmas,” David says. “It’ll be here before we know it.”

Patrick raises his eyebrows. “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”

“It’ll be nice to have all of our parents together again,” David murmurs. “My mom and dad are a lot during the holidays, but I’m still looking forward to it. I know I complain, but I kind of like filling the house with people at Christmas.”

Squeezing his eyes shut to try to hold back tears, Patrick says, “I know you do.”

“Is everyone coming this year?”

Patrick lifts his head, reaching up to stroke his hand over the rough stubble on David’s cheek. “Yeah, sweetheart. Everyone’s coming.”

David’s resulting smile is wide. “That’s good.”