by Sudha Balagopal

The first time I visit your apartment, we whisper a pact into each other’s mouths.

I imagine my words journeying into your heart, taking residence in one of the chambers, like yours do inside mine. I want to unzip your skin, slide into your body until we fuse.

Afterward, I brush my teeth with your toothbrush, shower in your bathroom, hug your towel around myself, change into your pajamas, and run your comb through my hair.

In three months, we seal our wedding ceremony with, ‘We promise to share everything.’

I tell you my father won’t put my mother’s name on the bank account, I tell you my mother has a gambling problem, I tell you about my recurring nightmare, the one where I’m traveling on a school bus as naked as the moment I slithered out of my mother’s body.

‘Everyone’s staring at my rising-dough belly and at my pancake chest,’ I say. ‘And that half-deaf bus driver won’t stop despite my screams. I want to break the windshield and fly out.’

You guffaw because I sleep encased within my security sack―a sheet I’ve stitched on three sides—while you sleep in the nude. When I invite you to climb inside the sack, you coax me out.

‘Honey, I’m your husband,’ you say, nuzzling my neck. ‘I want to kiss your beautiful nape, I want to buy you a diamond necklace.’

You don’t tell me you dislike blueberries. I figure that out by watching you pick them out of your salad, one deep-hued orb at a time. You don’t say you despise the color red—I deduce that when you donate your Christmas sweater to charity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Ten years later, we live on the seventh floor of an apartment building with a miniscule elevator. We share two children, one dog, one bank account.

Each night’s sleep serves up a nightmare. I step into the elevator and push the button for our floor. The doors close with a swish. The elevator hiccups, tossing me against the walls, the lights die and the carriage hangs. I push at the stubborn doors; they refuse to open. ‘Help, help,’ I yell, gulping the limited air. I thrust a frenzied hand into my bag for my phone. The device slides away.

When I share my dream, you wrap an arm around me. ‘Shh . . . honey, it’s only a dream.’

I use the stairs for the next three years, unless you’re in the elevator with me.

You don’t tell me you’ve lost your job until I see you at the public library one afternoon; you don’t tell me you’ve liquidated your retirement account until the investment company’s letter arrives; you don’t tell me the doctor says your blood pressure is alarming until the nurse calls, asking you to return for tests.

Twenty years after we made our pact, I don’t dream of nakedness, or being trapped in a coffin-like elevator.

I soar above the earth in my one-person vehicle: above a lake, above a mountain, above the birds, above the town, above a forest, above the clouds. When I’m ready to return, I push the “descend” lever on the twinkling panel. The defiant car flies higher. I pound at the controls with quivering fingers, take deep breaths, and entreat the celestial bodies for help.

I ache to tell you I can’t come down, I yearn to share my night-time journeys.

I cannot.

Because you didn’t tell me about the doctor’s warning, you didn’t tell me about your breathlessness, you didn’t tell me about your chest pains, which is why they found you slumped inside the plane’s lavatory, pulseless.

The stars along my orbit shimmer like diamonds in a necklace.

Like the one you once promised me.

Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Fictive Dream, Milk Candy Review and Split Lip Magazine among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction and is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50, 2019.