Cruelty is at the heart of the existence, tucked neatly between gravity and thermodynamic properties in the pile of immutable hardware with which the universe was built. Evidence of this is abundant, but one must look no further than the tiny yellow pills spilled across Celeste’s kitchen counter to see the witness marks of cruelty on this reality. Dozens of them have spread themselves among the white tiles like a scatterplot – L-DOPA mapping a set of data she can’t decipher. She sweeps all but two with her forearm, dragging them to the corner of the counter and back into their bottle. She wipes her eyes with the corner of her sleeve. Reaching to her right, she withdraws a long, menacing knife from its block. The blade wobbles only a little as she focuses on the meridian of one of the pills. In a universe built on compassion, the recommended dose for pills that keep your hands from shaking would always round to the nearest whole.
She splits the pill in half with no damage to her extremities, but the frustration won’t ebb. Celeste’s breathing picks up and she feels more tears boiling to the surface. She turns to the sink and yanks the lever full and to the left, throwing the pill and a half to the back of her throat and drinking full, unfiltered gulps from the rapidly warming tap. As the water begins to steam, she thrusts her head under the stream and takes rushed, snotty breaths. This is where he finds her.
Under the loud rush of water, she feels him before she hears him – a large hand on her shoulder while the other reaches for the tap. The water cuts off and the kitchen goes silent except for her still-ragged breathing and the ticking of the wall clock. Without speaking, he grabs for the decorative towel hung from the oven door and drapes it across her shoulders, letting her hair drip dry into the sink. While he works, he catches sight of the large knife and he is gripped with momentary dread. But just as quickly, he sees the orphan half of the pill – $26.50 of chemically borrowed time.
“Why don’t you just use the pill cutter, sweetheart? It’s in the drawer,” he says.
“I don’t like it,” she says, still hunched and dripping, “I’m French.”
“French?” he asks.
“It looks like a guillotine.”
The joke takes a moment to land, working its way through his worry before touching that part of him that loves her most. He laughs and the relief radiates from him in waves.
“I thought…the knife.”
“You thought I was going to slice my wrists like some sort of silly little goth? Don’t be stupid Peter.”
The smile that had grown on his face fades, and silence falls once again. Not knowing what to do, he reaches for her and pulls her to him. Her hair soaks through his shirt and he shivers slightly. She mumbles an apology into his chest, but it is muffled and turns into a sob. He rocks her. She weeps, but his warmth soothes her. He hums something soft and even, the vibrations skipping her ears entirely and moving from his chest to hers. Eventually, she is still.
Then, something else takes hold of her. She shoves away from him.
“I’m not a fucking child, Peter.”
He looks stung, standing there with suddenly empty arms and a dark, wet splotch where her head has been.
“I never said…”
She cuts him off, “Don’t sing to me like a goddamn baby.”
She wants to hurt him, to light a fire within him. He doesn’t budge.
“You treat me like some sort of antique,” she screams, “Like you’re going to break me. Fuck you. Say something!”
He says nothing. He steps towards her, arms at his sides with his palms toward her in supplication. He is a good man, he is her strength and she hates him for it.
“Don’t,” he says.
She slaps him. Then she does it again, harder. Anger flashes behind his eyes. She lashes at him again, but he catches her.
“Stop it,” he demands. She has her reaction.
She lunges at Peter, kissing him hard while his grip is still painful around her wrist. He wrenches his head away from her in shock, but the separation lasts only a heartbeat. He drops the wrist as they resume their kiss with none of the affection of their marriage. They gnash at one another, his mouth hot with the bile of her slaps, hers with the intensity of doom with which she has lived for months. Flooded with adrenaline and one and a half tablets, her hands don’t shake. They move to his waist and pull him toward her.
She fumbles with his belt and strikes him again when he tries to help. He grabs for a handful of her wet hair in response and pulls it hard, forcing her to yield her neck to him; he is on it in a flash kissing and biting at her while she strips him from the waist. He hates her for this show she has put on – for forcing him to act like an animal. He hates her for making him a widower before his time, for abandoning hope long before it is time. He wants to show her – to force her – to accept life, even if he has to push it inside her himself. He lifts her from her feet and perches her on the counter.
Peter spreads her on the counter and is between her legs in a minute, devouring her with none of the tact and reserve he has shown her since January. She screams in the stillness of the house and claws at his shirt, willing it over his head. It briefly separates them as it slips over his face, but he is on her again before his momentum fails. She looks down between them, between the heroic efforts of his tongue, and sees that he is flush for her, working himself with one hand. She calls his name and grabs for the edge of the sink for greater purchase.
He stands to his full height over her and pushes himself inside her quickly, moving frantically through a series of half-thrusts until he is sunk fully within her. There, he pauses and their breath syncs off-beat, exchanging the air between them. His face is red with emotion and effort. Every inch of her body feels full of him as begins to move again. Her fingers dig into the strained flesh of his arms.
The half-pill is lost to the floor.