He grinned nervously and squeezed her hand as they stood together outside the smooth, white door. “I’ve never been inside a zero gravity chamber before,” he said, smiling his lopsided smile. “It’s safe?”
“Perfectly safe,” she reassured him, squeezing his hand back and returning his smile. He couldn’t help but notice how tired she looked. Beautiful—always so beautiful—but tired, too. More tired than usual. The skin beneath her eyes was dark, her cheeks drawn and pale, and the corners of her mouth twitched, as if the effort of holding a smile was a worthwhile strain. But of course she was tired; she’d been working night and day on the zero gravity chamber for quite some time now. She’d skipped more meals than he could count, and most mornings, he woke up to find that she’d never even come to bed, but had fallen asleep on the couch instead—or, on at least three separate occasions, on the floor right outside the entrance to the chamber.
But now it was complete, and she could finally rest. He tucked a stray wisp of her graying blonde hair behind her ear. “I can’t believe you made this.”
“I made it for you,” she said. She gave his hand another squeeze, then she pulled it away and placed it flat on the chamber door. “Are you ready?”
A dazzling beam of blue light blazed to life beneath the white surface of the door, a thin, horizontal bar that moved up, and then down, scanning her palm. Then, with a loudwhoosh, the door pulled itself back and slid to the side, granting them entry to the chamber.
“Incredible!” he gasped. That this monumental piece of science-fiction actually existed—and in his own basement, no less—was absolutely extraordinary.
“We’ll program your hand print too, so you can use it if I’m not here.”
“Thank you,” he said. He took a step toward the opening, then hesitated. “Should I go in?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, please! Everything is ready.”
“I don’t need any sort of suit or anything? An oxygen mask?”
“No, no, nothing like that. All you need is you.”
She gestured toward the door, and he gave her one last, nervous grin. “Okay,” he said. Then he held his breath and stepped into the chamber.
It was shaped like an egg on the inside, an egg big enough to hold a Volkswagen. He stepped gingerly onto the gleaming, sloping surface, afraid he’d accidentally crack the finish. As if reading his mind, she said, “Don’t worry. It’s very sturdy.” She had that way of knowing what he was thinking, sometimes before he knew it himself.
“Okay,” he said, his voice shaking a little with nervous excitement. He glanced around the sparkling room. It was truly beautiful. Elegant. It was her work, and wasn’t this way by mistake. “Do I just…?” He bounced a little on his heels, but he didn’t leave the floor. Gravity was still in full swing.
“Hold on,” she said, slipping into the chamber behind him. He could even hear the weariness in her voice. Every word was a poorly disguised sigh. “I have to close the door.”
She reached for it, but his hand instinctively shot out and grabbed her elbow. “Wait,” he said, suddenly feeling very claustrophobic. “How much air will we have?” He tried to sound nonchalant.
“There are air filters. Up there.” She pointed to the top of the egg. “They’re flush with the walls. Totally hidden. But as long as there’s air in the house, there’ll be air in here.” Then she pressed her hand to the inside of the door panel, and with another blue light scan, it slid back into place and locked itself up tight.
Once they were sealed in the chamber, she turned back around to face him. Her face was brighter now, and her cheeks had flushed pink around the rims. Her smile was easier, too, more solid. More real. She took both of his hands in hers. “What do you think?” Her voice was, at last, the old, cheery song he’d fallen in love with so many years ago.
“It’s incredible!” His nervousness had evaporated, just like that. “How do you initiate the zero gravity?”
“It’s already been initiated,” she said with a sly grin. “Don’t you feel it?”
He laughed. “No,” he admitted, smiling as he bounced on the balls of his feet. “See? Still on solid ground.”
She blushed a bit then, her eyelids becoming hooded. “It’s not that sort of zero gravity,” she said.
“What do you mean?” He didn’t feel confused, exactly, by his lack of understanding. Rather, he felt excited at the possibility of discovery. His curiosity was obvious in the wide smile that spread across his face.
“This room alleviates gravity completely…but not the gravity of physics. The gravity of life.”
“The gravity of life?” he asked, his voice tinged with wonder.
“Yes. All of our seriousness. All of our anxiety. All of that useless weight we carry in our words.” She was fairly beaming now. “It dissipates in this place. The chamber makes this a zero gravity zone.”
He laughed out loud, long and hard. “You can’t be serious!” he said, though there wasn’t a trace of malice in his voice.
“See for yourself! Talk about something that was weighing on you this morning.”
He thought for a few seconds, tapping his lips thoughtful with his finger. “Ah!” he said, lighting upon a topic. “My job!”
“What about it?” she asked.
“I think I’m wasting my time there,” he giggled. He automatically raised a hand to cover his mouth, turning a bit red from the embarrassment of such a mirthful little laugh. Then his eyes widened a bit, and he tried again. “I’m miserable there!” His voice came out as bubbly as soap. He shook his head in astonishment. “Why don’t I feel sad about that?”
“Zero gravity,” she said with a Cheshire grin. Her voice took on a game show host lilt. “The latest in relieving life’s little stresses!”
“Incredible!” he repeated. “It’s almost as if…almost as if…” She raised an eyebrow, a subtle encouragement for him to go on. “Well, it’s almost as if I actually like the fact that my job is destroying me a little more each day!” They shared a long laugh. He took her hands in his and squeezed them tenderly. “What a brilliant invention,” he said through tears of joy. “And what an extraordinary woman you are.”
She smiled and rested her head on his chest. “Thank you,” she said, closing her eyes and listening to the sound of his heart.
They stood like that for quite some time, enjoying the restored airiness between them, their collective lightness of being. “Whatever possessed you to manufacture such a miracle?” he finally asked.
Without lifting her head, she sighed happily and said, “I made it for you.”
He smiled, content. “So you said.” He stroked her hair thoughtfully. “Is it because I’m too serious? Does it weigh us down?”
She nuzzled her cheek in deeper into his chest and clutched her arms around his waist. “I didn’t make it for the gravity you have now; I made it for the gravity you’ll have soon.”
“And what does that little riddle mean?” he asked with a chuckle.
“I wanted to tell you, in here.”“Tell me what?”
“About the cancer,” she said, breathing in the scent of him.
“Cancer?” he asked.
She nodded. “It started in my uterus, but it spread…it’s in my liver now, and my bones.” She sighed again. “And my lungs.”
“What a startling bit of news!” he cried happily.
She pulled away and smiled up at him, taking his face in her hands. “Isn’t it?” she grinned.
“How long have you known?”
“Not so long, in the grand scheme of things,” she said with an easy little shrug.
“You bided your time before telling me,” he said, amused. “What do you know about that?”
“I didn’t want to weigh you down,” she said simply.
“I understand completely,” he said airily. “It’s serious, then?”
“Any help for it then?”
“What do you know about that?” he said again. “After all this time...”
“Yes,” she agreed, her eyes shining with tears of joy for the moment unfolding between them.
“There’s so much we’ll never do,” he said, thoughtfully, but not sadly. Nothing felt sad. Nothing hurt.
“You’ll have to do them for the both of us,” she suggested.
“A reasonable idea,” he admitted. He shook his head and grinned his lopsided grin. “Life is strange, isn’t it?”
“Stranger than fiction.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The air inside the egg felt crisp and freshly laundered. The filters were scented with lavender, the room filled with its subtle floral tones. He breathed it in, breathed her in. “What a wonder, to feel such peace about such tragedy.”
“That’s why I built you this chamber,” she smiled. She kissed him, and her lips were warm, and full. “To spare you the sadness of it.”
“How does one even know how to begin to make good on a blessing such as you?” he said.
“You like it, then?”
“I adore it.”
“I hoped you would.” She sat down on the floor of the egg and reached up for his hands. “Come here, sit with me.” He did, and his knees popped, a startling sound that sent them both into a fit of giggles. They sat cross-legged facing each other, their fingers intertwined, as the smooth and complex interior of the chamber quietly and perfectly dissipated their despair. “I suppose we’ll have to leave the egg eventually,” he remarked.
“Everyone has to leave everything eventually,” she retorted with a wink and a smirk. “But not yet. We don’t have to leave yet.”
He meant to ask her what it would be like when they left the levity of the egg and their gravity was fully restored, but he couldn’t quite make the words. His mouth had no taste for them. “Zero gravity,” she told him, shaking his hands in hers. “Like it or not.”
He nodded. There would be time for gravity—more than he might care to acknowledge. But this time, in this place, with this woman. It was a gift. Later would come the gravity. Later there would be the tears and the fear and the anger and the screaming and the fights about treatment and the denial of this punishment and the words that couldn’t be unsaid, not once they were lobbed like spiteful grenades, because those words would exist in the world, where they would carry a weight, a crushing, bruising press of sadness and blame and helplessness and regret.
But later. All of that, later.
Here, in the egg, there was him, and there was her, and there was a brightness of knowledge and acceptance and a shared familiarity centuries deeper and stronger than mutating cells. He kissed her fingers, and she kissed his fingers back. “I love you,” he said. “I love you,” she replied.
And they sat in the chamber for a little while longer.
Clayton Smith is a writer, publisher and teacher. He is the co-founder and Archduke of Dapper Press, and a lecturer in the Business & Entrepreneurship Department at Columbia College Chicago.