Recent Work By Amy Monticello

Cold sore 2Yesterday, I woke up with a familiar sensation, or what, for me, is a familiar sensation: a tingle in my upper lip. A slight, hair tickle itch. Fizzy, like I’ve rubbed my mouth with the skin of a habanero pepper. I went to the bathroom and turned on the light, unconcerned about burning my eyes with the sharp, sudden brightness. In the mirror, I saw the faint irritation lining a section of my lip about a quarter-inch long, barely noticeable. From experience, I knew it would erupt in the next few hours. A cold sore.

On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.

My father’s urologist projected the CAT scan on his computer screen, pointing out the major organs like battle sites on a Civil War map. My father’s body, my homeland. Bladder. Liver. Intestine. Spleen. “Here’s the right kidney,” he said, using his pen to mark the perimeter. “You can see its recognizable shape, a healthy shape and size.” We nodded, my mother, my father, and me. We knew pointing out normalities meant an abnormality was coming. Dr. Petroski inhaled. “And now here’s the left kidney,” he said, moving his pen to a dark area that did not mirror its right-hand counterpart. It was as large as my father’s liver, but misshapen, a bulge in the center like a football. “You see the difference in the shape? That’s a tumor. That’s the problem.”

My father died on November 12, 2012. The date matters. My mind clenches the details, hugging tight the hairpin curves of my memory. I am the cartographer of this map. November 12, 2012.

Though it was a heart attack that ultimately killed him, my father was facing terminal cancer, and so our grief had been underway for weeks before his death. As the grim test results piled up, I shuttled my father to and from doctor’s appointments, picked up his medicines, stocked his fridge with the foods he needed to cleanse and strengthen his body. I did this mostly on autopilot and very little sleep. When I did occasionally break down—in the car, in my office behind closed doors—the ferocity of my keening frightened me. The pitch of it. The way it overtook and then left me, a funnel cloud suddenly curling back into the sky.

Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.

                                            —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

 

 

In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.

I was seventeen when a new millennium reset the world. I started it by drinking a bottle of cinnamon-flavored liquor at my own New Year’s Eve party and passing out in my room, sleeping right through the ball drop. In the morning, my mother woke me with the dregs of the bottle in a shot glass, the sickly sweet, spicy fumes like smelling salts under my nose. She told me to drink the shot or get grounded for being an asshole. I drank the shot and slept the entire first day of the year 2000.

Astrophysicists work to uncover a Theory of Everything, the mathematical equation of all life in the universe. Religious zealots describe heaven and hell in florid detail. Tarot cards, constellations, the all-mighty Google. In our search for certainty, whether through belief, proof, or a near-perfect search engine, what is the value of choosing not to know?

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

Part One in a new series about brothers and sisters I have adopted throughout life as an only child.

I adopted Susan as my sister when we were two years old, in daycare. It wasn’t daycare, really, not in the modern sense. We didn’t have a certified childhood education specialist preempting our literacy development, rudimentary mathematics, and confidence-building socialization. We had Carla, the kind, middle-aged woman from across the street, under whose dining room table we took naps, whispering to each other from opposite sides of the fake Persian rug. It was Rainbow Bright and Spaghetti-Os daycare. Carla, whose bushy brown hair resembled an Elizabethan headpiece, sent us home with vivid orange mouths each weekday to our single, working moms.

Susan was a natural choice for an adopted sister. Her real sister was a decade older than us, already edging into preteen disaffectedness, reading Seventeen cross-legged on her bed, stereo playing, door closed (yes, we secretly worshipped her). Susan and I also shared a birthday. Susan was older by fourteen hours and six minutes, a fact I resented until our twenties. That our parents were both divorced made it irresistible to posit theories of twinhood, one of our mothers having an affair with one of our fathers, producing us, and then splitting us up for cover. Divorce apparently made us numb to things like infidelity and conspiracy. When our mothers put an end to it–“Who the hell do you think we are?” my mother said at dinner, lighting a cigarette–we tried to become stepsisters by setting Susan’s mother up with my father. Seven years old and broke, we picked wildflowers and put them in a vase with a forged note. I couldn’t get my father’s left-handed print to look right, and the ruse never got off the ground.

We looked nothing alike, of course. I was tall, working my way towards plump, with frizzy brown hair and eyes the color of black coffee. Susan was short and spindly, with luscious, dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and a ski slope nose I still think is the prettiest in the world. If we were twins, even in our imaginations, we were undoubtedly fraternal.

It worked to our advantage that our mothers became friends, too. While Susan and I donned costumes and smeared pilfered red lipstick on the mirror in my bedroom, our moms drank boxed white zinfandel and smoked. They talked single-mom talk–bosses who made their daytime lives hell, daughters who made their nighttime lives hell, child support payments, houses in various states of disarray, fatigue, depression, anxiety, anger. My mother’s sense of the dark comedy that was our life was better honed than Susan’s mother’s, so we spent most of our time at my house, where we had more privileges and less yelling. Not wanting to part at the end of the night, we devised a fail-safe system for sleepover requests: we counted our mothers’ glasses of wine. At number three, we struck. We tiptoed into the kitchen and handed our respective parent a note.

Can Susan please spend the night, pretty please with carrots and peas? I’ll take out the garbage and dust and vacuum the whole house. Circle yes or no.

Mommy dearest, can I please please please please spend the night at Amy’s? Pretty please with hot chocolate, whipped cream, and three cherries? Yes No Maybe.

As soon as we got our way, we fought. I was an overly sensitive child who cried easily and couldn’t take a joke, and Susan was a ball-buster. I can’t remember that our fights were about anything more than that. But once feelings were hurt, we were likely to push each other, scream, and swear we hated each other, just like real sisters. My mother’s penchant for doting on any child that wasn’t her own made these fights fraught with extra sensitivity–deep down, I had grown accustomed to not sharing my mother, and nothing could make me feel as unsafe as the thought of her loving anyone more than me. When she took Susan’s side–and she always took Susan’s side–the knot of worry that I would go through life alone tightened inside me.

When I was ten, my mother had a breakdown during Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house. Wordlessly, she began crying at the table, great, silent sobs that shook her shoulders, her head bent over her plate. My aunt and grandmother led her upstairs, and when they returned, my grandmother told me I would be staying with her and my grandfather for a while. “Your mom needs some time to herself,” she said.

I stayed with my grandparents for a week. Every meal invariably included red meat, something I never ate at home. My grandfather critiqued my table manners. “Elbows off the table,” he said. “Bring the food to your face, not your face to the food.” Each morning when I woke in my grandmother’s sewing room, sunlight weak through the pleated coral-colored curtains, the sinking feeling that my mother wouldn’t return grew stronger. I didn’t know how to deal with this fear except to cry, an act not well tolerated in my grandparents’ reticent house. “You’re not a baby,” my grandmother said, “so stop behaving like one.”

Towards the end of the week, my grandmother took me along while she ran errands. We drove my great-grandmother’s seafoam green Chevy, a car that steered more like a boat and had a clean, minty smell I can still conjure in my dreams. Sitting in the Grand Union parking lot, her long fingers curved around the thin, hard steering wheel, my grandmother told me that I was the reason for my mother’s breakdown. “You’ll have to grow up, Amy Lynne,” she said, using my middle name for emphasis, “if you want people to love you.” I stared out the window at the slushy parking lot and said nothing, even as the air in my gut went straight out of me.

I don’t know if it was this or puberty that kicked my obsession with people liking me into high gear, but around this time I began letting my insecurities run wild. At school, I desperately sought popularity, kissing up to the Lindsays and Lauras that ruled our class. I spent Thursdays with my father and took advantage of his cluelessness, preying on his penchant to show love through money. We took epic trips to the mall and returned with bags of clothes from The Limited and Gap. My mother’s face would fall when I came home, arms loaded with Daddy’s love. She didn’t like watching me get spoiled, especially by the man I had come to worship because he wasn’t around enough to hurt me like she could.

Susan’s mother, on the other hand, gave new meaning to the word “thrifty.” Determined to pay off their house and save for retirement, she took Susan to K-Mart for new clothes. Susan’s father had all but disappeared–he showed up every other year or so for a lavish visit, only to vanish into another chapter of his new life near Lake Placid. If anyone had the right to feel lonely as a kid, it was Susan, not me. While I grew more sociable, hanging on the periphery of cool kids and chasing boys, Susan grew quieter and more detached from the cliques forming at school. She hardly ever raised her hand in class or participated in extracurricular stuff, possibly because she really had no interest, possibly because her mother wouldn’t let her do anything that cost money. A Czech immigrant whose family fled to Germany at the start of the Cold War, Susan’s mother was practiced at living without, and passed minimalism on to her two daughters. Every other year, Susan’s mother would take the family back to Germany to visit Susan’s Oma and Opa, and I complained to my mother that we never took trips like that, all the way to Europe. I’m embarrassed to remember my jealousy when Susan would leave for two weeks in the summer and return with bars of chocolate thick as a book and wrapped in paper with another language written on it. In reality, because she did not speak German, Susan’s trips overseas were hardly more exciting than her life at home.

As our priorities grew more disparate, Susan and I saw less of each other. We still walked to school together during junior high and high school, but we had increasingly shallower conversations as we crossed the railroad tracks over Nanticoke Avenue, cut through the sparse backyards on North Street, crisscrossed the potholed parking lot of Philly Sales. Though I was actually just a patsy for popular girls–I did their homework, wrote their papers, gave them my mother’s stolen beer–I pretended to Susan that I fit in, bragging about parties I went to, guys I flirted with, substances I consumed. Every time I made out with someone, I told her every salivating detail, acting as though I was growing up faster than she was, pitying her for getting left behind. Either because she was kind or because it was easier, Susan said almost nothing during these dish sessions, letting me believe her silence was envy and not indifference. While I was out gathering “friends” and boyfriends, Susan began working part-time at K-Mart when we turned sixteen. That’s where she met Bob.

Bob was twenty. An almost five-year age gap was a huge deal when it came to a junior in high school. Susan’s mother went ballistic over the relationship. She called my mother to report catching Bob in Susan’s bedroom, Susan sneaking out to meet Bob, Susan and Bob continuing what Susan’s mother had strictly forbidden. In addition to learning what she could live without, Susan had also learned from her mother a fierce independence. Her personal rebellion wasn’t expressed with black clothing, body piercings, or tattoos. By the time she met Bob, Susan didn’t care what people thought of her, who she dated, or what was “normal” for a teenage girl, even when it came to how she pissed off her parents. She cared only about being happy. And Bob, a gangly, bespectacled artist who loved heavy metal and black humor, made her happy.

Susan and Bob circa 1999

For a few months, Susan and I had more than our history in common again. She had a boyfriend. And she was thinking of sleeping with him (I had rather notoriously lost my virginity the previous year, one of the first girls in our class to do so). Though we still only shared the occasional walk to and from school–I got rides from boys with cars whenever offered–we were finally having two-way conversations again. Susan’s perma-scowl receded from her clear, makeupless face, replaced with a giddiness I hadn’t seen since we last opened my costume chest and put puffy green wigs on. Then, as suddenly as the onset of her glee, Susan stopped walking to school.

My mother knew before I did. She sat me down at the kitchen table one night when I returned from a party slightly buzzed and sporting swollen lips. “Susan’s mom called,” she said, a full ashtray in front of her. “Susan’s pregnant.”

By the time she began to show, in the middle of our senior year, Susan had become nearly invisible to the rest of our high school’s twelve hundred students. She recently made a crack about how she showed up to Economics in sweatshirts to hide her growing belly, and nobody noticed anything different about her, that her slightness had ballooned underneath those layers of fleece. Only a handful of her closest friends knew she was going to have a baby, and maybe because it was Susan, because our friendship had become something private and compartmentalized from the rest of my social life, I was actually able to keep her secret. She gave birth to her son, Devin, in early spring, finished her coursework from home, and graduated on time. To this day, I bet plenty of people from the Class of 2000 still have no clue there was such a scandal among them.

I visited Susan in the hospital the day after she gave birth. My mother has a picture of me holding Devin, a garish shade of purple adorning my lips. I clearly attempted to straighten my curly hair, which hangs in a bushy ponytail down my back. The red sweater I’m wearing is the cropped style popular that year, a terrible cut for my high waist and hips. In trying to look like everyone else, I just look ridiculous.

It’s funny how people grow apart only to grow closer again. In the years after high school, when I went to college and then graduate school, and Susan and Bob had four more boys together, I shed most of the friends I had back home. I have no idea what those Lindsays and Lauras are doing now, though I bet they think back on high school and scoff at their former selves, too. I don’t know if it’s quite the same for boys, but girls from suburbia have a giant orbit of self-knowledge. It leads them out into the nothingness of identity and only very slowly draws them back into something recognizable, something that feels right again. Few of us escape the pull of that orbit. But Susan did.

Susan and Bob got married by a justice of the peace almost a year after Devin was born. My mother and I both attended. I felt honored to be invited to the small, informal ceremony, to eat cake at Susan’s mother’s house afterward, the house now fully paid off. As her grandsons came into the world–first Devin, and then Cooper, Mason, Jaxon, and newborn Kaiser–Susan’s mother would take the money she scrimped and saved through years of wanting, and help Susan and Bob buy a house in the country where their family could stake a small, but rich claim of the world together.

I now teach freshman writing and learning skills development at a private liberal arts college about an hour from where Susan and I grew up. School, as it always did, continues to structure my life, offering me routine, offering me chances to outshine others and accumulate praise, chances to belong to a group of like-minded people, academics nowadays. Other than my half-identity as a struggling writer, I’m as conventional as they come–educated, ambitious, and now, newly married to an equally educated and ambitious man. If my husband and I have a child before I turn thirty, we’ll positively reek of normalcy. Susan will barf.

For her part, Susan’s Facebook page does the finest job describing where she has landed:

I am who I am and I won’t apologize for it. 😉

I am an against the grain, on the fringe, vegan, breastfeeding, baby wearing, sleep sharing, non vaccinating, unschooling, pagan, hippy mama to 5 awesome boys. I couldn’t have said all that even four years ago. I am always educating myself so that I can make the best choices for my family.

I am married to my partner, my soulmate, my strength, my rock, my best friend. I am one very happy girl.

Susan uses the term “unschooling” for the education her five boys receive at home. It’s unstructured for sure–no lesson plans, no exams, no formalizing of any kind, even in a basement or garage classroom. Her children learn by living, as Susan says, helping their mother total grocery bills, helping their father restore vehicles, helping their grandmother garden. If you subscribe to the rigors of conventional education, like most Americans, you might be unsettled by this learning design, or non-design. As a teacher, I didn’t quite know what to make of it either, though I certainly knew better than to question Susan’s decision. She would have told me to fuck off and mind my own business.

But I’ve spent time with Susan’s family, especially since my husband and I moved back to upstate New York, especially since I’ve realized that the people who love you best are the ones who don’t expect you to be just like them, like Susan, like my mother. Bob had an art show at a local bookstore last summer. I stopped by to show support and say hi to my old friend, my first adopted sibling, my only twin. Susan had her hands full with Jaxon, her two-year-old, who had just discovered that pulling his pants down in public is funny. We stood around hiking up Jaxon’s britches and catching up, when suddenly her oldest, Devin, appeared at her side wearing a deeply familiar look. He had something behind his back, something he was about to ask for. I half-expected him to slip Susan a note.

Susan pointed her upturned nose at whatever Devin was holding. “Whatcha got there?” she said.

Devin showed her. “Mom, do you think we could get these? Please?”

Susan inspected the goods, then smiled and handed them to me. They were floppy, glossy-covered workbooks, just like we used in grade school. Math workbooks, to be exact, fifth grade level. Devin was ten.

If you think Susan’s unconventional schooling methods don’t work, you might have to reconsider. Not only do Devin and his brothers exhibit high intelligence and endless curiosity, but Susan thinks about education constantly. Her Facebook page is packed with links about homeschooling, or unschooling, stuff she devours in her spare time. Strangely, her belief in practical learning–the stuff of life–isn’t all that dissimilar to my interest in experiential learning at the collegiate level. But I’m sure we’ll have that debate the next time we get together, and Susan’s sharp tongue will sting at least once, even if I no longer cry about it.

We celebrated our mutual 29th birthday last week. While I got married last October to a man who, other than the heavy metal, kind of reminds me of Bob, Susan and Bob recently celebrated ten years of marriage and the birth of their fifth son. My twin sister may be fourteen hours and six minutes older than me, but those hours might as well be years, both in experience and in her sense of self. I still agonize over some hallway exchange with a colleague, some email with an indiscernible tone. Not Susan. She knows who loves her, the real her. She knows that a few blessed, precious things are, against all odds, permanent.

The Brown family at Christmas last year.

 

 

 

Day One

Because I have my father’s proclivity for drinking and my mother’s lack of grace, I trip on a loose stone of the homemade fireplace while cleaning up after the party, and land my right hand, dominant, in a nest of glowing coals.

Dear M—,

 

I’m writing to ask about your goldfish, Javaunte. Is the World’s Oldest Goldfish still alive?

*

I’m sorry for the names I called you a few years ago. I’m sorry I wished you were hit by a truck. I’m sorry for stealing your e-mail address and trying to log on to your Facebook account so I could pick through your private messages and the profiles of men I suspected you’d slept with. I didn’t know much about Facebook then, or my own desperation for answers. Though I wouldn’t admit it, not to you, I was embarrassed. It’s not like me to do something that brazen or unethical.

*

Well, sometimes it is.

*

When I found out I was sick and might not get better, I went through Jason’s things while he was at class. I went through his desk drawers, his closet, the boxes under his bed. I went through his file cabinet. That’s where I found a stash of notes from you, filed under “Misc.” One of them had crude pencil drawings on it–you, Jason, and a smiling goldfish. “Please feed Javaunte,” you’d written.

Like everything else I found that day–a birthday card that spoke of a “bittersweet summer,” an old driver’s license word-bubbled with “I need some crack!”, a few photographs–I shredded the note to pulp.

*

We were moving to Alabama after graduate school. That’s why I started stalking you. Facebook, MySpace, Google searches with twenty different keywords: your name, law school, University of Alabama. That’s where you had just earned your Juris Doctorate, and where I would be teaching English in the fall. That’s where I expected to see you in my new coffee shop, my new bookstore, except they wouldn’t be mine because they would already be yours, like Jason was. I needed to know what you looked like so I could recognize you. What you looked like now, I mean.

*

In the pictures on Jason’s wall–the collages of college friends and concert tickets and newspaper clippings with his byline–you sometimes had blond hair, sometimes brown. In black-and-white, your eyes looked blue, but when I wrote once that they were blue, Jason corrected me. “Brown,” he said. “One of the irises leaks a little, like a dog’s.” He said that to make me feel better–here, a flaw–but I thought it was cute. I love dogs. I love flaws. I love Jason’s crooked bicuspid, the one he threatens to straighten someday, the one that cuts my lip when he isn’t careful.

*

You, holding a glass of white wine, a lit Christmas tree behind you. You, camping. You, wearing a Catholic schoolgirl’s outfit on Halloween. You, standing on a bridge with sunglasses on. You, smoking a Camel Light. You, sitting on a dock, looking out at the water, Jason sneaking up behind you to get the shot.

*

You were right about one thing: I can’t prove it was you. I know only that you had the disease first, the year before I did, that you lied about it, that you gave Jason a cure that doesn’t exist. What were those pills?

I can’t prove it was you, but I had to believe it was you. How else would Jason not take your calls in the middle of the night, when his cell phone screen read, “Baby calling,” and not see you on trips home when I stayed behind, and not one day introduce us and make us play nice over drinks? How else would those pictures come down so new ones could go up? How else would he finally, once and for all, let you go?

*

It was probably you. We both know this.

*

I never saw you in Alabama to tell you how I was feeling. In your body, the disease turned dormant and went away. In my body, it evolved.

When my sense of humor is most intact, I imagine a scenario. I imagine we are girlfriends that talk about their trips to the gynecologist. I imagine that, in Tuscaloosa, we get together over beers at Egan’s and grimace over the wrinkled doctor who treats us both in that complex behind the university. I imagine you know all about the protesters in the parking lot, the ones who carry misspelled signs (“You’re fetis loves you”), who call and make fake appointments. I imagine you, too, have had to arrive two hours early for a check-up because those protesters think you’re coming for an abortion.

I imagine it starts to get dark outside, almost as dark as in Egan’s. I buy us another round and ask if I can tell you something personal, something bad. You say yes. You say of course.

I tell you that the nitrogen oxide made me feel like I was rolling off the metal examination table. That the nurse held me fast and said, “Hush, baby, it’s almost over,” and I told her “baby” was your name and “darlin'” was mine. That Jason didn’t go in with me because I told him not to. That I wanted him to come in anyway. That I left part of my cervix in that room, the part covered in dividing cells, the part it took two people to make.

Like other women who have left pieces of themselves in that building, I, too, could call that part “baby.”

*

Even though your profile is mostly private now, I remember your pictures on Facebook. I made fun of you for writing “luv” in reference to your dog. I called you a bottle blond.

Here are some things I wouldn’t have said then: I think you’re pretty. I think you love your sister. I think your best friend is more beautiful than either of you, but also crueler. I think she has a controlling way about her, and I think you have done things to impress her that aren’t really you. I think you take a lot of self-portraits, like me. I think we are both insecure. I think that’s why I once cheated on a boyfriend I still miss sometimes, and why you cheated on Jason.

*

Jason and I are married, eight months now. At first, I made the wedding pictures public. You weren’t the only reason. But I hoped you would see them. Please forgive me. I’ve made them private again.

*

My friend laughs every time I tell the Javaunte story.

Jason was recalling Alabama, something he does more often now that we live in upstate New York. He couldn’t remember the name of someone in his hometown, the name of a wino who nearly died in the alley beside the Marion jail. “Oh, we’ll just call him Javaunte,” he said.

Immediately, I saw the bowl sitting on a coffee table covered with ashes and band stickers. Plastic grass waving in water that needed to be changed. A funny caption. “Javaunte: World’s Oldest Goldfish.”

I smacked Jason on the arm. “You pulled that out of M—‘s fishtank!” I said. He looked stunned for a moment, and then he remembered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I completely forgot about that.”

I stood up to get another beer from the fridge. “I know everything,” I called, sing-song, from the kitchen. “You have no idea what I know.”

*

You know what’s weird? I had a really old goldfish, too.

I got Norman when I was eight. My mother took me to the Tioga County fair and let me go off with some friends to the rides and games. I had only one rule. I was not to play the goldfish game. No more goldfish, she said.

I didn’t think I would win. I had no aim, wasn’t the least bit athletic. It was just luck that damn ping-pong ball landed in Norman’s slot. The game attendant put him in a sandwich bag filled with water and tied it off. My mother was livid, but she mumbled something about fair goldfish always dying the next day anyway.

It started to rain on our way to the car, and my clumsiness caught up with me. As I slid into the backseat of our Chevette, the sandwich bag slipped from my hand. The knot came undone, and all the water spilled out, on the floor, in my lap. It had a fishy smell. Norman lay flipping around on the fabric seat.

I screamed, horrified. My mother didn’t want a fish, but she didn’t want one to die either, so we got out of the car and began scraping rainwater off the other vehicles, refilling the sandwich bag with about an inch–all we could get from the hot July shower.

We put Norman back in the bag and drove home. He looked lifeless, barely fluttering at the bottom. My mother told me to expect the worst.

But Norman made it home, and through the next day, and the next. He lived until I was twenty-two.

*

Besides fortified goldfish, I wonder what else we have in common, M—. I’m sure you’ve wondered this, too. I’m sure you’ve thought there’s got be something we share besides cells and boyfriends, something fundamental, something a man like Jason would love in both of us.

Maybe enough time has passed for me to send you a friend request. Maybe we should move our stalking out in the open. Look at the pictures, scrutinize the hair, the eyes, the easy or uneasy smiles at the camera Jason is or isn’t holding. Maybe, if we look long enough–if we watch one another change jobs, cities, friends, body weights and hair colors and outfits–we’ll find the familiarity we were once sure didn’t exist in the other.

Even if it’s just goldfish we’re determined to keep alive. That’s something. I hope Javaunte is doing well.

 

Best,

Amy