Cleo woke up in the night to feel the gentle shift of her husband pressed against her elbow. She had been sleeping flat on her stomach, like she did on most nights. Her sleep was all elbows and pillow creases on her face, and a river of drool that she was still eager to hide from him. She was not an easy person to sleep beside, she knew that. Neither was he.
She shuffled away from him and the room changed from charcoal to wooly grey as her eyes adjusted to the lack of light. God he was warm. She moved the duvet off one of her legs to expose it to the air, then put a hand on his back and felt the cotton soaked in sweat. She had the strong urge to cough, a kind of rumbling in her chest. He was often this hot in the night. They kept the room cold but he still burned up and she couldn’t seem to get used to his heat. It was like sleeping next to a fever. It made her feel like she had the flu.
This was a part of the night that she used to relish, but he liked to sleep early, and he liked to sleep next to somebody. She imagined herself slipping out of bed, smoking a cigarette on the balcony and watching the city below, or better, walking in it. How long had it been since she ventured out into the city on her own feet? But he would wake up if he felt the bed empty.
She noticed how small he seemed on the bed next to her. Was it his head that looked childlike? He was shorter than her, a fact that they both avoided talking about. Not too much shorter, but just enough to see it in pictures when they posed side by side. He’d taken to putting his arm around her and dragging her in front of him, tilting her like a heavy human shield. In so many of their pictures she was balancing on one foot, or standing lower than him on a slope. They never talked about it. Just like they never talked about his nighttime fevers or the few times he had caught her texting other men. It was always texting, nothing more, and it only happened before they were married. Still, it would have been nice, to talk about it.
They say that in dreams you cannot feel physical pain, but that’s not true. In one dream, Cleo felt her ribs compressing until they snapped and splintered. It made her afraid to sleep.
When her husband finally woke up, he kissed her on the cheek and Cleo sprang out of bed and into the bathroom. She opened the medicine cabinet, tipped her head back and took four big gulps of the cough syrup she found there. The bottle recommended two tablespoons.
She accidentally poured the last of the cereal into his bowl instead of hers.
“You don’t want any?” he asked.
“I’m not hungry,” she said, ripping a banana off the bunch.
“You should eat something.”
He wasn’t looking at her. The cough syrup was starting to feel pleasant in her body and the room swayed a bit. She tossed the peel along with half the banana.
“I’m going for the paper,” he said, after he had finished eating.
She lifted each corner of her mouth and tried to make her eyes shine at him, the way they used to. He looked at her and then looked away without smiling back.
Then suddenly, he shifted, or slid, or perhaps there was simply a glitch. It doesn’t really matter how it happened, but he got smaller. Not a lot smaller, only enough that she or his mother would notice. It was like he was a picture being reformatted on a computer. The picture wasn’t cropped, one corner had just been dragged inwards. His bowl and spoon were closer to him now, he bumped his spoon against his chin, but otherwise he didn’t seem to notice the resizing.
“Maybe, I mean, could I come with you? To get the paper?” she asked.
He stared. “Why? Is there something you need?”
“Can’t I go for a walk with my husband?”
Her answer made him more suspicious. Finally, she said she wanted tampons, he was always buying the wrong kind. She said she wanted to choose the package herself. Really, she hadn’t had her period for a while. Another thing they didn’t talk about.
His hand looked sickly and small as he gripped the keys, slotted one into the lock and turned it, with a little more difficulty than when he’d been his normal size. She had to walk slower than normal, to avoid accidentally leading him. He hated being led.
The shrinking happened whenever she wasn’t looking at him, but it wasn’t all of him that shrank every time. He stepped over a sickly pigeon and all of his head shrank except for the nose. Now the nose looked weird on his face. Cleo found a pill in her purse and dry swallowed it when he wasn’t looking. It stayed in her throat until they reached the corner store. By the time they got there, his arms were shorter, his thighs were thinner and his thumbs looked like they belonged to a child. The store-owner didn’t notice.
“Didn’t you want to get your, uh, stuff?” her husband said, once he was ready to pay.
A big shrink happened then. His hands zoomed into his arms, which shot backwards into his shoulders, his neck squished into his torso and his legs shot up into his stomach. What a small man. His nose barely reached the shop counter. She put her stuff beside his.
When they returned to their apartment he was so small that he had to clamber up the stairs. He refused her help, and the journey took them until the late afternoon. She had to pretend the stairs were equally challenging for her that day. He shrank to pocket-size. They sat on the couch together, and she was careful not to shift the cushions, otherwise she might have buried him. Then she had an idea.
“I want to have sex,” she said.
He nearly choked trying to cover his surprise.
Cleo remembered one great night they’d had that started as a bad date. It was so bad that it should have ended their relationship. They’d barely spoken over dinner, and when they got to his apartment, he flopped onto the bed and turned on the TV without looking at her. She wondered why she was there.
After a while, one of them initiated contact. A hand touched a thigh, or teeth met a shoulder, or eyes finally met eyes and it was all over. The quick slide of a skirt hiked, legs exposed, fabric moved to one side. The TV was muted. She made sounds to let him know that she liked this, or that. They took the rest of their clothes off in the middle of it and in the breaths between. He moved her like a choreographer. Then he finished and tried to turn the TV back on, but she demanded more. Maybe she bit his neck gently, or kissed it, or kissed his mouth. He said something and touched her and all of the sounds went quiet except for her sounds. He shifted her closer. Like they were close. Like they knew each other.
Now he would be too tiny for that kind of sex. It might kill him.
“Why don’t you go get in the shower, and I’ll join you?” she asked.
She thought of the shower drain. It would be like a water slide for a man his size, or a black hole. His excitement distracted him. He got smaller as he sauntered over to the bathroom, and she heard his tiny clothes dropping. She heard him turn on the hot water with an agile leap, and the rustling of the curtain as he finally got in.
Cleo went to the kitchen drawer and took out one of her husband’s secret cigarettes. She lit it using one of the matches designated for the vanilla candles that they burned through the apartment.
When she thought enough time had passed, she opened the door of the bathroom cautiously. She said his name and he didn’t answer. When she looked into the shower, it was empty. The water was flowing down into the drain.
Artwork by Dorothea Tanning, “birthday”, 1942