I jumped awake as if someone had pricked me with a pin. Shafts of soft moonlight speared the room through the crack in my curtains.
I could hear myself panting. The cold chills racing over my skin told me something was wrong. The eeriness of the tranquil, near dawn hours caused my imagination to work overtime. What had woken me? Intruders? Scurrying rats? Ghosts?
Beth, get a grip, I scolded under my breath.
Then I heard it again. A faint thump, thump, thump on the ceiling above me.
My heart kicked up a gear and went into overdrive, the blood racing through my veins. I threw back the covers and bolted for the door, grabbing my mobile phone as I went.
Heedless of my skimpy negligee I raced for Matt’s bedroom, once again cursing his stubborn determination to take the bedroom upstairs, for he’d insisted on not having any special treatment and demanded we all draw cards for the pick of rooms in our flat.
His desire to be like any other flatmate, when he clearly wasn’t, would be the death of him – literally.
I took the stairs two at a time, dialing the emergency services as I went. Matt’s thumping could mean only one thing; he couldn’t breathe.
This had happened once before, about seven months ago, but the memory of that night – watching someone fighting for air, seeing their lips turning blue and their chest heaving, even though no air actually entered or escaped – never died. Thank God, neither had he.
Why wasn’t someone answering my call?
I burst into Matt’s room just as the dispatch person on the end of my mobile asked, “Fire, ambulance or police?”
I was about to say ambulance when I noticed Matt’s handsome face smiling at me from the bed, no hint of a gasp or heaving chest.
“Oh. Sorry. My errant flatmate seems to have his breathing back under control. We won’t need an ambulance.”
They had Matt’s emergency bracelet particulars on-screen and the matter was soon sorted.
The snap of my mobile phone closing echoed in the small, still room.
I crossed to the side of his bed and stood, hands on hips. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”
“My breathing is suddenly erratic since you turned up in that red silk number. Perhaps you should call them back.”
I tried to hold my frown, but I could feel the corners of my mouth lifting. “Gosh, sorry. Next time I think you’re about to die I’ll remember to stop and put on a dressing gown.”
Matt laughed. “Oh, Beth. Don’t be so dramatic. Covering that negligee would be sacrilege. Tonight, with the full moon, I can see every breathtaking curve through that negligee.” His smile faded. “It’s a sight worth losing my breath over.”
I leaned down and cupped his cheek. “Don’t do this. It’s not fair.” My lips tingled as I bit down hard, instantly regretting my choice of words.
“Life isn’t fair. If it were, you’d be lying beside me, in my arms. I’d be making love to you and we’d be planning our future.” Matt drew back the covers to invite me in. “At least I still have the strength to cuddle.”
I lay down in the crook of his arm, curling into his slight frame, my head on his chest, hearing the frantic beating of his overused heart, and blinked back my tears.
He stroked his hand lightly down my arm. “I’m sorry I scared you. I didn’t think. I just wanted you with me tonight and I couldn’t get my lungs working enough to yell for you.”
He hugged me tighter. “I don’t know. I couldn’t sleep and – well – it’s a full moon. His gaze was full of longing. “I wanted you to share it with me. I knew you’d appreciate it. It’s almost as beautiful as you – the glow of the full moon in a cloudless, star-filled-sky.”
I swallowed. Matt always saw the beauty in the world around him. Everything about life was precious to him. He found every aspect of the planet amazing, beautiful or extraordinary.
I’d known Matt most of my life. We were both now in our third year at University. He was reading law while I did my business degree. I admired Matt more than any other human being. And I loved him even more than that.
I couldn’t keep the hurt out of my voice. “You know I’d be with you every night if you’d let me. Remember, you’re the one who keeps saying it won’t work and that I should get on with my life. You can’t keep letting me in and then pushing me away. It hurts too much.”
As both child and teenager, Matt’s cystic fibrosis had never been an issue. His personality, wit and intelligence drew everyone to him, even though he wasn’t particularly active and couldn’t play rugby or tennis or any sport with the other boys.
Girls flocked around him; they always had. His illness brought out their mothering instincts, while his fabulous sense of humour and stunning good looks brought out a whole different kind of instinct. Either way, it meant I didn’t get as much of his attention as I’d have liked.
However, at seventeen my dreams came true. Matt noticed me and took me to my school leaving dance. We’ve been a couple ever since; until two months ago, when he’d made me move to the vacant room downstairs.
Matt sighed. “I’m selfish. I know I need to let you go but I can’t. I love you. You’re my breath of life. Without you I don’t really care if I can breathe or not.”
I pulled out of his arms and sat up. “So, are you admitting that you’re a pig—headed dim-wit and you’ve made a mistake pushing me away?”
He reached out and pulled me to him. “Yes, God help me. I want you with me. Always. Besides, I believe I’ve got quite good at the sex without oxygen, even if I say so myself.”
“The sex has never been that important to me, you know that.”
He tucked a strand of my hair behind my ears. “For a woman of your age and beauty, it should be.”
There it was again. Sex. The one thing we fought about all the time. I couldn’t work out if it was his male pride, his own unfulfilled desires, or a genuine concern for the things he believed I was missing in life, because of him.
What he could never understand – what really infuriated me -was my life was so much richer with him in it, even if all he could do was smile at me. Matt’s smile took my breath away.
Matt dropped his gaze from mine. “I’ve got something else to tell you.” He paused and cleared his throat. “Several months ago I put my name down on the transplant list.”
My heart stopped. Fear and hope gripped me in equal measure. He hadn’t told me. He’d known about this for months and he hadn’t shared it with me.
The doctors had made it clear; the stronger he was at the time of the transplant, the better the chances of survival.
Was he strong enough for this? Matt wanted more time. In my heart I knew it was to be with me, and the guilt ate at me. What if I convinced him to have the transplant and it didn’t work and he died? But what if it worked and we were able to lead a near normal life?
I knew he was scared of the operation. He wasn’t scared of dying – only of losing me.
Softly I whispered, “What made you change your mind?”
He bent his head and kissed me gently on the lips. “Over the last few years there’s one thing I’ve craved. To make love to you properly. I have this image in my head of how good we would be together. I want to know if it would be as fantastic as I imagined it. A heart and lung transplant might only give me a few months, or at best a couple of years, but to have your love would last me an eternity.”
“You’ll always have my love.”
His mobile on the bedside cabinet buzzed, indicating a text message. He leaned over to read it.
He looked up at me, and his blue eyes sparkled, his sensuous lips breaking into a wicked smile. “I might have just got my wish. It’s from the transplant team. My new heart and lung is ready.”
My heart flooded with warmth, a powerful, overwhelming feeling of hope rushing through my veins. I wouldn’t be afraid. Whatever happened I’d experienced true, unselfish love. “I was meant to be with you tonight.”
“Of course.” He hugged me with what little strength he had and I could feel his soft lips grazing my cheek with butterfly kisses. “Sweetheart, you’ll be with me forever, in this life or the next. No matter what.”
The Australian Literature Review