She looked up at him as he took her hand and shook her head forcefully. “No, I can pay for them myself.” her tone was firm. “I have money now, I thought I was going to have to give up the house but it seems my writing skills have finally pulled through for me.”
Phoenix listened to his words, his promises of forever and while still on her guard she allowed herself a small smile, the calm after the storm simply letting them hang suspended in time. All the tears had been cried and the sadness been spent, they both appeared exhausted from the reunion and for a moment it was like normal. “I went without hearing you talk for longer than I would ever like to again,” she murmured, leaning against his chest once more, bringing their hands to her lips to plant a kiss on each of his spindly fingers. “I love you, and please believe me when I say that I don’t think I will ever want another. When I think of the future I only see you and I and this house.” and it was the truth. Sighing, Phoenix gazed back up at Leo and stroked his cheek, frowning at how skinny he had gotten.
Trailing her thumb across his lips she scooted up to kiss him long and slow, the feeling rising in her throat making her heart ache when she pulled away to look him in the eyes. “Stay with me tonight, please.” she asked quietly. “I miss feeling you near.” His breath stirred a few stray bits of her hair, they were so close. But he couldn’t live with her, not right now, after all that had happened. He had hurt her in a way she wasn’t entirely sure she could be hurt, but when she spoke of them living apart she didn’t mean forever. No, just not for now.
“No, Phe,” said Leo quickly. “Please: at least let me do that. Let me pay half of what I owe. I’m not short on money. Give me the honor of making me hate myself just a fraction less by letting me pay.” A dull wave of shock came over Leo’s heart as he felt more tears prick the insides of his eyes. He wiped them away quickly with the back of his hand, although a few stray ones slipped through, yet this time it was different. He wasn’t in hysterics or having a panic attack — these tears were silent and melancholy, a bit like he was beginning to feel.
“I’ll stay with you,” he whispered, bringing the young woman to rest upon his chest again, him burying his face solemnly in her sweet-smelling hair. “I don’t know how you can even permit me to be this near you, nor will I ever understand your capacity to still love me. But I’m glad that you do. I’m so sorry. I missed holding you this closely.”
Leo remained silent for a few moments, contemplating her. He held her a little tighter and cried a little harder, trying to stop himself but failing ultimately. He pulled back, wiping the last of the tears away. Hopefully they would be the last tears he would cry in awhile, but he doubted it. He looked back to Phe and caught her eyes, whispering “I love you” as he twisted his hands in his lap.
She stared at him evenly this time when he raised her chin to him, their eyes locked and she listened to what he had to say. His lips brushed her forehead and she watched a bit of life breathe into him as he spoke, his face still a little red from the crying, she was sure her own was a horrendous sight, but still strong. Leo, her Leo was picking away and trying to shine through, there was warmth returning rather than chilly desperation and seemingly empty promises.
Pulling away to sit up, leaning her back against the couch and wiping away tears she took a shuddering breath and sniffled a bit. I’m happy you took care of yourself , his words made her avert her gaze, the marks from the IV still weren’t gone, hidden beneath her sleeves and faint ghosts of bruises from the EMTs hands were very evident on her chest, also masked by her clothing. He couldn’t know, she didn’t want him to know, it wasn’t his burden to bear. “I thought it was my fault.” she said, looking at the wall opposite them. “Leo it hurt so terribly bad, you were just gone. I thought you’d left for Paris, maybe there was someone else.” those nights she would lay in bed and drive herself up the wall thinking about him, off with some pretty french woman happier than he ever could’ve been with her. “You can’t live with me,” Phoenix said abruptly. “No, no I mean… you can’t here. Not yet, not in the same bed. Please stay the night, but after that I can’t let you. Just in case, I can’t go through this again Leo.” she rubbed her puffy eyes and let her shoulders slump.
“I don’t know how I feel about what you’ve done. Anger, hurt, probably unwanted over everything. I would’ve rather you’d stay in New York if you were simply going to up and leave after we moved cities… I don’t know, I thought you’d gotten bored of me, I was just some second-rate American girl you kept around and then decided was too plain.” she didn’t want to think about this right now, it was an ugly thing to let loose in her mind.
Leo listened patiently, understanding her reasoning for not trusting him enough to live with her just yet, although that did not lessen the sting. He noticed her avoiding his eyes, and he assumed it was most likely because they were frightening and bloodshot. He lowered his gaze, unwilling to meet her eyes, unwilling to frighten her anymore. “I understand,” he conceded. “You have every right to make me live on my own. I understand. I just… I love you, cherie, and I hope that I haven’t ruined things for us completely. All of those things we dreamed… our blue heaven… that wasn’t for naught. I wasn’t lying to you. I want those things, cherie. I do. I want to wake up next to you for the rest of my life — however long that may be — if you’ll permit me. But… I understand. I’m sorry. I’m getting carried away. I talk too much, don’t I?”
The Englishman shifted in his seat, shutting his mouth long enough to simply marvel at the wondrous nature of the woman he loved. He thanked God for her forgiveness, said a solemn prayer for her in his mind. California seemed to agree with his lovely Miss Bentley, however; the sun had tanned her skin just slightly enough to give it a warm, late summer glow. California, it seemed, disliked Leo. His first impression had not been great. The warmth seemed to want to suck him up and spit him out, miserable and drenched. Phe kept her charm even in the most undesirable — or at least so he thought — places.
Leo quietly took her hand and stroked it, remembering the softness of her small hands, how her entire hand could fit without trouble into his palm. Her palms remained soft and white, not roughened at all by his departure, which he counted as a good thing. His lovely Phoenix was a force to be reckoned with. “If you won’t allow me to stay with you,” he observed solemnly, “I hope you’ll at least let me pay my share of the bills. That’s the least I can do.”
She watched the slow acceptance of his situation as he stuttered on and continued to cry. At the mention of him wishing death she felt anger inflame her mind and she slapped him again, not as hard as before but still a decent one. “Shut up.” she ground out, pausing to wipe tears from his cheek. He looked sick, at his admission he might be sick she sprang up from the couch and into the kitchen to retrieve a stock pot which she pushed into his lap.
With him leaning over it, his chin resting on the edge and looking so pitiful she tied her hair up and sat on the arm of the sofa, tracing her fingernails in patterns on his back to soothe him as he wretched. He was no better off than her, lost and alone and fractured from the sad events that had come to pass. “I don’t hate you, I love you.” she murmured. “It’s alright, you’re here, I’m here. You don’t deserve cancer, you will not die and everything will be okay. It has to be okay.” Phoenix’s mantra just kept repeating itself over and over again. His mindset was familiar to her, one who was looking loss right in the face and felt nothing. She knew about the hollowness that came with apathy and she did the only thing she knew she could to combat it.
When she had been alone she had wanted nothing more for the person who mattered to hold her, to tell her that she was worth something and that she was important. To be told that her presence would be missed most of all by that. So that is exactly what she did. When he appeared to be finished she took the pot and moved it to the kitchen, rinsing it out and dumping it before heading back to sit next to this poor specimen that was reduced to a whimpering mess. Phoenix gathered as much of him as she could in his arms and she pressed her lips to his temple, saying nothing at all, content to sit until his heaves grew silent and his tears dried up.
Leo felt like a child cradled so warmly and delicately in her arms; it almost seemed as if she were afraid to break him. The lack of food in his stomach deterred the urge to vomit slightly, yet he’d still choked up a fair amount of stomach acid. His throat burned, he was exhausted from heaving with nothing coming up, and the taste in his mouth was metallic and unpleasant. She said she loved him. He loved her. God, he loved her. He didn’t deserve her in the slightest. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, catching the sweet scent of her recently shampooed hair, letting it wash away a bit of the nausea. He wasn’t sure if the scent was more like strawberries or peaches. Perhaps it was both. Or neither. He encircled his arms around her waist, his trembling slowly decreasing, and he held her closer than he ever had before. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled into her neck, wanting to kiss it but thinking she would find it disgusting considering the sorry state in which he was stranded. His bleary eyes lifted to touch her gaze with a sort of comforted softness. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I, um… I didn’t mean to throw up. This really isn’t going at all how I’d hoped.” Still leaning against her for support, he propped himself upright on the couch and brought her head to rest on his chest. It was in this position he felt most comfortable. “I love you.” he said.
He had never meant anything so much in his entire life. The words fell from his lips without hesitation, without even a thought. He simply told her as easily as he existed. What worried him the most was her doubt; she must have doubted some things. How could she not when the man who had walked out on her and made their whole courtship seem like a big, cruel prank waltzed suddenly back into her life and nearly died on her couch? How could one recover from that? Forcing himself into steadiness, he brought his hand up to rub circles into her shoulder blade, pressing her forehead to his and simply holding her as he hadn’t for much too long. “I love you, Phoenix. I know you must not believe me, that if you don’t hate me, you must be irrevocably angry. And I cannot change that. But I will not allow one more moment of your unhappiness to be my doing. I know that someday all of this will be for naught. That no one will remember the things we whispered in the dark, or the things we said, the sonnets and love poems we wrote — I know that, and I accept that there will be a time when no traces of us are left. But… that moment is not now. Now I’m here, and I’m home with you. And I’m in love with you. Do you hear me?”
She swallowed, retreating to the far end of the couch and lowering her eyes to her hands, watching them twist this way and that. Leo’s face paled more than already, an impressive feat. “I was so worried, you didn’t leave a forward address and there was no way for you to know. I thought you weren’t coming back and I couldn’t have called, you weren’t picking up your phone.” her voice droned on and on and eventually she looked up at him, meeting his gaze. “I have the letter, they said the spots were cancerous. Surgery, they want to have surgery and refer you to a specialist in LA. Th-There’s a sixty percent chance it can be successfully removed.” Phoenix brought her knees to her chest, staring back at him, gnawing on her bottom lip.
It was too much for her, too much too soon. He had come back, collapsed on her porch, nearly passed out on her couch and on top of that she had to deliver the news that he had cancer. She wanted to touch him and kiss him and have him hold her but she also wanted to scream and cry at him. Her emotions were spinning circles around and around inside her head and she couldn’t take it. Maybe this was what shock felt like, an hour ago she was waiting for a pizza and now the man who left her was sitting three feet away. The man she had cried over, had sat in the hospital for four days over. The only one who had such power to break her so completely waltzing back in with tears and love confessions to spare. She didn’t know what to believe and where to place her faith in anymore, he had promised so many things and it seemed all of them had been broken.
He was the realest thing in this room and also the most phantom-like. His lips and his skin was real but she wasn’t entirely sure what she saw was the same person, but it also wasn’t the time for her. Lifting her head she stared at him, remembering everything and letting a mask fall into place. She had indulged and she had let herself be vulnerable already, it was time to prepare for the inevitable leaving again. This time if she was expecting it it wouldn’t hurt quite so much but retracting her emotions and not letting them bleed between the lines would make this run a little smoother.
“They said there were alternatives, chemo and some other things. I don’t know.” she buried her face in her hands. “Why. Why did you do this? You leave me to deal with that? You were gone and I had to live with the fact that you had cancer and I had no way to get to you. Do you think I’m a robot who wouldn’t care? You leave one afternoon while I’m out paying bills and I come home to an empty house? Did I do something wrong? Were you exacting revenge on me for some crime I’m not aware of? Please enlighten me Leo!”
Leo paused, assessing the information. Cancer. The faceless monster eating away at him from the inside, and he’d left the information with Phe, who’d had no way of contacting him. If he hadn’t come back… “Cancer,” he repeated, out loud this time. There was an audible change in his voice: it was nearly an octave lower and quaking. “I have… cancer.” He swallowed the word. It nearly burnt a hole inside him. “I… I don’t know. I’m sorry, Phe. I thought it would let you know I was coming back. That I wasn’t gone. But I didn’t think… oh God.” He could not keep himself from cracking. Everything was falling away beneath him, the only platforms on which he had left to stand. Now he truly had nothing. Phe would not want a pathetic, cancer-ridden liar. The world was not a wish-granting factory, and he’d learned that now. He believed it now. Leo made no effort to wipe his wet eyes. He could barely see anything.
“You did nothing wrong, cherie,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “I loved you. I still do. I left only because I’m a coward, and I’m not worth your time. I was frightened, cherie, that you would think differently of me once we lived together. That you’d find out I’m not a perfect English gentleman. That I only go to Paris to hide. That I drank myself into a stupor so badly I nearly vomited on my own father’s grave.” His words were incoherent due to the violent sobbing. And what a pitiful heap he must look to be now, at this moment! Hijacking her evening only to bring her more pain. “I smoked in London too. I smoked packs. Oh God, I deserve this. I do, don’t I? For hurting you, for doing this. I’m glad. I deserve this. Cancer. I deserve what I got.” He could barely see; patches of black invaded his vision. Spots of light danced in his eyes. “I don’t want to leave again, but I don’t deserve to live. I’m glad I have cancer. It’s good. I hope it kills me. I should be dead.”
Leo panicked, feeling his heart rate jump to a mile a minute. He crushed his face into his hands, unable to breathe yet unable to stop himself from racking with the painful sobs and not really caring. Stop it, he screamed in his mind. Stop it, you fucking moron. You realize you look like an arsehole, don’t you? She’ll hate you. She’ll hate you for this. You fucking git. She hates you anyway. Good thing you have cancer. Go fucking die. Leo’s breath came in heaves. “P-Phe,” he stammered, “I-I think I’m going to throw up.” He lowered his head again, covering his mouth and losing control of his trembling.
His hold tightened on her arms and she closed her eyes and felt his chest rise and fall with his heaves and Phoenix bit her lip and stilled her shoulders so as to not move too much. “I missed you. It was…” she let her mind forward through all the events that had come to pass since she had found his note. “It was more than difficult.” Her hands searched for his and she twined their fingers together, scooting up to press a kiss to his jawline.
“I could never hate you Leo. Never in a million years. I didn’t understand why you left me but I would rather you be off doing whatever you wanted then spend one second unhappy with me. I wanted you to come back,” she let her hands clench into fists around the fabric of his shirt. “I wanted you to come back so badly it hurt. But you didn’t. I was prepared to give up, the first week was hell on earth.” Phoenix recalled the feeling of the pills sliding down her throat.
Her emotions seemed clogged, overruled by the unadulterated relief and joy that he was here with her, she couldn’t summon the energy to be upset or even to cry at the moment. However it seemed wrong to not inform him of the piece of paper that was eating away at her. “Leo… your test results came back.” Her joy got sucked out the window as she was reminded of the gravity of the situation.
He stopped short for a moment, contemplating her statement. His test results? From — Oh God. “The biopsy?” he whispered, an icy chill coming to rest upon his back, encasing his heavily beating heart in stone and ice. Why was it that she looked so pale, so sunken when she told him? He knew he’d left the address with her. He had meant to. He’d hoped she would take it as a sign of his imminent return. But… he had predicted that they’d be positive. Were they not?
“What do you mean? What were they?” He began to feel nauseous again, sitting up and pressing a hand to his stomach. He had been losing weight, he’d been tired and nauseous, he’d been irritable and depressed… and his lungs. Oh my God. Why is she staring at me like that? Do I… “Phe… what does that mean?” He asked, heart in his throat.
He couldn’t breathe and he was wasting it trying to convince her that he was in love with her. He was laying on her couch trying to get his lungs to work and he was still spewing out confessions of undying affection. Had Phoenix been not so afraid he would pass out she would’ve started crying but unfortunately he looked dangerously close and she couldn’t funnel enough energy into her feelings at the moment as he lay there staring at her. He had called her Cherie, his nickname for her and oh god it hurt so much, her chest compressed and she shook her head, wiping one of her eyes with the back of her hand. “Leo stop, I believe you. Please focus on your breathing though, don’t talk, just please calm down.” his inhales and exhales were short and shallow and she lay a hand on his chest to feel the rise and fall.
He was crying, she couldn’t ignore it, instead she murmured soothing words to him as she wiped his eyes as she had done with her own, staring at the figure who seemed so determined to get his point across. His eyes were begging her to believe him and maybe she was just stupid but at that moment there was nothing she wanted to believe more. She leaned over him, listening to his breathing regulate out despite his tears. “Leo I had something very important to tell you before you left, and I was afraid you were never going to hear it, I wonder if it would’ve made you stay. I never thought you were a god or a king, I never thought any of those things I thought you were a man who smoked too much when he was younger and liked to sit in blanket forts with me and would sit by himself sometimes and look out the window twirling a pen in his fingers. Leo I am in love with you and I never dreamed you up to be anything other than what you were. I love you because of what you’re not.” and she kissed him, her own body shuddering as the dam that had kept all these emotions back for way too long cracked and split, letting the river flow free.
His elation as her lips pressed to his was more than he could bare, and all at once, he was woozy for different reasons. His breathing had regulated somewhat, though his body shook relentlessly with sobs. Although to hear Phoenix say she still loved him exploded some sort of indescribable joy in his heart, it almost saddened him as well. He’d nearly destroyed single-handedly something most people search for their entire lives. He tried not to hate himself for a few seconds, long enough for him to let her situate herself on his chest, although he feared his breathing would frighten her head away. It felt like years since the pressure of her head on his chest made him smile, and smile through the tears he did. He did nothing, however, to stifle his crying. He could not. He needed to cry, to release all the emptiness he had felt since leaving. “Y-You…” he was stammering. “How could you still love me? You must hate me. I’m nothing, cherie. I’m a failure of a man. How can you…”
Leo kissed her forehead, holding onto her with what seemed to his weak arms as a strong grasp, terrified this time she would disappear. She should disappear. She should break him, force him to end it on his own. But he wasn’t sure he could break anymore. “I love you. Cherie. Ma belle cherie. Mon seul amour. I love you. I can’t stop.” Leo kissed her again, shaking and crying and becoming the general emotional mess he had come to know himself as. “I missed you. I’ve missed you so much. I see no point in a life without you. I’d rather die. I would have. I couldn’t handle it. Cherie, don’t be a coward like me.” He could barely see her through the glassy fog of his tears.
She listened to him blurt out one thing after another, leaning against the doorframe to the house they were meant to share together. He looked miserable and she wanted to slap him again, to let him know how much pain she had been in but with each rattling heave of his chest she was reminded of the test results burning a whole in the drawer in her kitchen meant to alert him of his condition. He looked up at her and started spewing more words, she crinkled her brow in confusion at his contradictions but he was there within touching distance and she grabbed him by his shirt to help him into an upright position, noticing with displeasure how much lighter he seemed. At least a ten pound difference since last time they had seen each other. “Okay okay shh.” she soothed, watching tears well in his eyes and she pressed a hand to his cheek, the same side she had slapped. “Please, don’t talk just come inside.” she pleaded.
He looked so ill, his breathing was awful and she wasn’t sure what to do to help him. Everything inside her was at war right now and he looked to be nearing a state soon where he would be inconsolable, air coming in ragged gasps. She needed to calm him down but she felt nowhere near calm herself. “Leo,” her voice wasn’t strong but it was firmer than she thought it would’ve sounded like. “Leo take deep breaths please, calm down. I’m right here, the door is not slammed in your face. You complete and utter idiot, you don’t need to lie to me and say all those things just relax.” oh God she had missed him so much and she couldn’t not indulge in his smell and the sound of his voice despite the fact that she was telling herself not to, it would only make it harder the second time around. Staring at him like he was her anchor to earth probably wasn’t the smartest decision but she would regret later.
“Just breathe.” she repeated, resting her forehead against his chest (the only part she could reach with ease, once again reminded of the height difference) and hearing the shaky inhales. “God, why are you here? Why are you insisting on torturing me?” she said into his shirt which smelt of stale recycled airplane cabin. She wanted to kiss him, to touch and get her fill to hoard the memories away in her mind. Phoenix was disgusted with herself but the sound of his broken lungs clawing for air was the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard.
“I’m not lying to you,” huffed the Englishman, a few stray tears beginning to touch his bright red cheeks. “Phe, I love you. I’m so, so sorry. Every moment I spent without you has been nothing but hell. I only left because I’m a coward, because I have nothing good to offer you. Your perception of me was all wrong, Phe, I’m not the Prince Charming you were hoping for. I’m not a god, I’m not a king. I’m just a man. A man who reached for too big a prize.” His burning lungs practically became sentient only to beg him to stop, to control his breathing, but he could not. There were so many things to say before she kicked him out, too many things. “Dear God, Phoenix, I’m in love with you. Don’t be the coward I was. Do what’s good for you. Just know that I love you. I always loved you; I never, ever stopped. I’m broken, Phe. I’m worse off than anyone. I don’t know to do, I can’t even —” His thought was cut short. His lungs decided to stop the air flow completely.
He took the opportunity to stare blankly at her. What a fool I look like, he thought, holding his chest. Coming into her home, having a damn near seizure on her couch. What an idiot. What a fool. He suppressed the rising cough threatening to seize control of him. He had to be focused, but he was crying by now. He couldn’t stop himself, her eyes just grew too wide and lovely.
“Cherie,” he choked out. “Cherie, I love you.” It was the first time he had called her “cherie” in weeks, besides in his own mind. Cherie, I love you. I know you can’t hear me, that I can’t speak, but I told you my deepest feelings are in my eyes. Look at my eyes, just believe me. I’m not lying. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
As the plane touches earth, Leo repeats in his mind the only three words he knows to be true: I love you, Phe. I love you. I love you. I know you hate me, but I love you. The smell and air of Los Angeles came back to him, and he remembered unkindly how much he had come to dislike the city. It hadn’t grown on him the way New York had, or Paris, or even London. Perhaps it was the fact that he’d seen Annie Hall one too many times, and his idol’s distaste for L.A. had taken root within him. Perhaps it was the fact that the city had a certain air about it he found unpleasant. Perhaps it was because it broke his heart. Either way, stepping off the plane into the grim-looking city did nothing for the nerves eating away at his lungs.
His lungs had been acting up the whole flight, and he nearly damn landed the plain himself. Unable to breathe, he lay back in his chair and counted the minutes until one of the stewardesses caught sight of him practically heaving. He wore the oxygen mask the rest of the plane ride, unable to sleep without fear of his lungs collapsing within him. In his bag, he kept a special edition set of gold-embroidered Fitzgerald novels that he planned to give to her if she took him back. He would give it to her anyway, but he would hate to see the beautiful little collection destroyed in a fit of rage.
He suppressed thought as the plane descended and released him back into civilization. He would not allow himself to reconsider, to turn around and let Phe alone. She was probably doing alright without him. Maybe she had another boyfriend by now. Why did he want to ruin — no. He stopped himself. No thinking. No reconsidering. He would tell her he loved her if it quite literally killed him. Remembering without a doubt their old house’s address — he hadn’t been there long enough to call it a home just yet — he paid a cabby and attempted to not think the whole way there. Coming to the doorstep, he allowed himself a few fond memories of when Phe first showed him the house. He hadn’t loved it, but he did love her. He did not stifle himself. Swearing at his lungs not to make a show of things, he laid three precise knocks against the wooden door and held his breath to wait.
The air is cool, and I know that because the breath leaving my body is manifest before me, yet the coldness does not touch me. I am rather numb, but in a comfortable sort of way. The grass beneath my legs does not tickle them as it should, though I am consciously watching it brush against me. I am sure the headstone is cold. I do not feel it. Void of perception, the clouds cast a gloomy greyness above my head, dowsing the desolate little cemetery in rain, which I do not feel. Making an effort to move my phantom arm through space, I touch the only thing I can still feel — the book. And I can feel it only because it burns.
“Ugh your attempts to educate me will fail.” she said into his jacket. “I’m not as clever as I thought as previously proven.” Phoenix tilted her head and pulled away slightly to kiss him. “I’m so sorry I’m an idiot.” she stated like a little chant, punctuating each new round with a peck. “I’m not googling it, I’ll learn what it means and then it’ll be special. Besides what if it means something off the wall? I’d rather learn, then I can say it back and it’ll have that much more value.” she said to him. “Can I spend the night? I suppose I still have to ask, it’d be rude to assume.” Phoenix hesitated a second before adding the next part. “I don’t think I’ll sleep on the couch tonight, if you think that’s okay. I’d rather be with you, a wall seems like an awful lot of distance right now.”
“Indeed, it does,” he said, taking her hand and pulling her from the couch. “Je t’aime doesn’t mean anything you haven’t heard before. But it means something different coming from me, because it’s God’s honest truth. Je t’aime, cherie. And I always will.”