“Don’t take things too seriously,” said Mona, unscrewing the lid of a coffee can. “And never underestimate the power of doing nothing.”
I didn’t know what she meant. My mind couldn’t tackle “nothing.” Usually it’s enough to sneak-attack a problem, to flip it onto its back so that it’s exposed, naked and raw. That’s how I see it. To know something is to deconstruct it. We haven’t known each other long.
“What do you think about this?” She held the can to her eye. It was stupid. She couldn’t see.
“Ha ha,” I said.
Objects aren’t fun like they used to be. A toilet paper roll can only be a telescope for a tenth of the time it was when I was little. Adults don’t play pretend well. My solution is to go insane. I could play pretend all day.
“So,” said Mona, “when’s your dad moving into the nursing home—or out of your house, I can’t tell, sorry.”
“Sorry? What for?”
“Are you gonna have a party?”
“I’m sorry, that was stupid.”
Mona and I have been friends for a year. That’s not long. She doesn’t know yet, but I’m gonna kiss her. That’s right—I’m a lesbian. Just like how I’m a smoker and a meateater, on occasion.
“What I meant earlier,” she said, “was if you’ll do something nice together before you…set him up and leave.”
I cringed. There was that word—“nice.” Mona was always using it. She did have nice eyes though. Nice teeth. Soft hair.
“My dad’s going to quit his work,” I said.
“My mom and I are moving his desk and files, and we bought a fax machine, but he’ll probably just sleep a lot.”
Mona frowned. She had a way of looking sad for me. I liked that.
“Well, whatever happens, you know I’m here.”
“So,” she said. “What do you want to do?”
“Put that can between your legs,” I said.
“Now let’s drum.”
“Okay. I’ll start with a sentence,” said Mona, “and you sing.”
I hated when she made me sing.
“Don’t be blue, don’t be sad.”
“Don’t be blue, don’t be sad.”
She tapped the can. Her bicep jiggled.
“These are the best times you’ve ever had”
“These are the best rhymes you’ve ever had.”
“Stop it,” she said.
I said, “Let me play.”
I flicked the can, stroked its ridges. It had once contained Café Bustello. I wondered if Mona liked coffee. She was swaying, smiling. She closed her eyes and swayed. I felt like a snake charmer.
I was so close.
“Mona,” I said. She didn’t open her eyes, just parted her lips as if waiting to receive some elixir, drink up anything I’d say.
I watched her move to the beat, watched her body, her mouth; people look so free when they’re dancing.
“Nothing,” I said.
Growing up, I had a friend named Dwane. Dwane and his mom, Taree, lived behind us. He was five years old when they moved in, a year younger than me. We shared backyards. Our fence was broken. He’d pull me around in my red wagon and seemed to like it.
“How’d you get in here?” I’d ask him.
He’d look to the fence, say “Magic.” Dwane was short with words.
“Push me around in the wagon.”
“It’s not pushing, it’s pulling.”
“That’s the most you’ve said all week.”
I was young, but I knew how to act dumb and sweet. I knew the look of innocence.
“Get in the wagon,” he’d say.
When Dwane wasn’t around, Dad would push me. We’d pack the wagon with juice boxes and bologna sandwiches and eat them as soon as we hit the pavement. He’d push me around the cul de sac, up a big hill to The End of the World, where the sidewalk ended. It was a crooked and chipped slab of concrete. There was a fat tree root underneath it, like a vein, pumping out of the ground. By the time we reached The End of the World, all that was left was some juice.
“So,” said Mona, feeling her pocket for Chapstick. “How does your dad feel?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He can’t breathe as good.”
“As good as what?”
“As he used to be, before.”
“Come here,” I said.
My arms opened. I had no control. They went automatically, like my body couldn’t take it, the knowing what it needed. I didn’t think.
Mona pressed onto me like a warm sack of flour. I felt her breasts on mine, but they didn’t feel like breasts, just more flour. She smelled like cinnamon, or honey, or both. Her hair spread like an ocean wave on my shoulders.
“Are you cold?” I asked.
She lay on me for a while. I could support her. Hold her up to the light.
“There’s just one thing I’m not sure of,” I said.
“I’m not sure when he’s going to die.”
She laughed. Her belly bumped mine. “So you’re not sure of not being sure when he is going to die? What does that even mean?”
I was starting to feel stupid. I was starting to feel like I wanted to push her off.
“You shouldn’t think that way.” She sighed. I felt that too.
I let her lay on me longer, in silence. I couldn’t speak, felt heavy and light, like a desert, full of heat and dry air.
Mona inhaled. She didn’t know she was breathing my panic. Maybe that’s what other people are meant to do: catch your burdens, dump them into a plot to bury.
“Mona,” I said.
Her head rose. I lifted her chin with my finger and kissed her.
It was dark, but the moonlight poured through the blinds. Mona’s head was in my lap. I touched her forehead, her lips.
“It has to be illegal,” I said, “to love someone so much.”
Mona looked up. “I have to go,” she said, stiffening.
“Nothing like a good day to put you in a bad mood,” I said.
“What do you mean?” She sat to tussle her hair, then leaned on my shoulder as if nothing had changed.
Before I was born, Mom and Dad would go to the beach. The beach could have been anywhere between New Jersey and California. They drove cross-county, selling vitamins. They loved each other a lot, and still do, but Dad is older than Mom and that brings its problems. Mom is scared of the moment Dad’s life will end. She doesn’t want to relive discovering her father dead in her childhood home. Mom was seventeen. Mona’s seventeen. Mona’s not real though. She’s a misplaced memory, a loose and tangled thread; a moment that doesn’t want Dad to die, and one that does.
The next day, Mona called. “I’m so sorry,” she sobbed.
“For leaving you like that.” she said. “I shouldn’t have done that. You were so vulnerable.” Despite her sniffles and snorts, she sounded awkward and robotic, like some machine was selecting words for her.
“So what?” I said. “Does it matter? You say you want love, but you don’t.”
“I never said that.”
“You were asking for it.” I said.
I sighed into the phone. “Look, just because you’re cute doesn’t make you immune to people’s advances. It makes you susceptible.” I sort of felt robotic, saying that.
Her voice shrunk. “Whatever,” she squeaked.
Now she sounded stupid, how I liked her.
I hung up the phone and went downstairs to see Dad. He was sitting in his club chair, sleeping. When he sleeps, his head is cocked, his mouth open. He breathes through his mouth. His lips are dry. Words escape when he exhales, but there’s never any sound.