Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
Anthony and his girl were at it again. She was in the backyard, making her awful noises, directing them up at the second floor where Anthony was. We could hear him clunking around up there. She yelled. He clunked. This was their unique talent: to sustain a heated argument without using any actual words.
"Why doesn't she just knock on his door?" Mona said. She was stirring rice.
"Maybe she's retarded."
"I told you: I talked with her."
"That doesn't mean she's not retarded."
"She's not retarded," Mona said. "Stop saying that."
"You want me to call 911?"
"Please don't, Timothy."
The last time I'd called, the cops insisted on taking complaints from us, which meant entering our apartment, which meant Mona had to run to the bathroom and flush my stash down the toilet, while I used the word officer several hundred times. And then, also, there was Anthony and his girl. They glared at us as the cops lectured them out on the porch. Every day for the next week, they left little gifts on our doorstep. A strip of rancid bacon. A salted slug. This kind of thing.
I told Mona I wanted to confront Anthony, but she pleaded with me not to. I was incredibly grateful for this. Anthony was terrifying. His arms were matted in dark hair. He wore clothes too small for him and his pale gums showed when he grimaced. He made Mona shiver. Shit, he made me shiver.
Anthony's girl looked like an overstuffed kewpie doll. Her eyes were blank and sort of sinister. She smelled strongly of baby oil.
When we first moved in, we'd found Anthony and his girl fascinating, part of the local color. We speculated on how they might have met. (At the Pink Floyd laser light show? Cruising the local flea market?) They didn't seem violent. It was only her noises that set them apart, these strange, comic wails of grievance. Some nights, drawn close under the sheets, our skin still ripe with the smell of sex, I would lie there in the dark and translate.
Wait, I'd say. She's telling him he forgot to pick up laundry detergent.
She asking him why he isn't more supportive of her macramé.
She's saying: Let's do it with the lights on this time, you big lug.
I can see now that we should have left the house on Montford, moved on to a place where Mona and I could have run our natural course. But I think at that time we wanted most of all to feel solid with one another. And living beneath Anthony and his girl, withstanding their terrible fights, was a sort of shortcut.
There were other factors. Our place was cheap. Mona liked the afternoon light that cut through the alcove where she wrote poetry. And I enjoyed proximity to my suppliers. We spoke of the arrangement as temporary. Soon enough, we would make off to some nicer address, one with central air and water that wasn't brownish.
"I can't listen to this anymore!" Mona announced. She looked as if she were going to tear at her hair.
"Shall we dine out?" I said. "The Dash, perhaps."
"How about somewhere else? Somewhere nicer."
I showed her my wallet, turned it upside down and let the bills, all three of them, flutter to the ground.
"Fine," she said. "Let's just go."
On the way out, I locked the new deadbolt. It had cost more than forty bucks, but it was worth it, just for the feeling of security. We both suspected Anthony was breaking in while we were out.
The Dash Inn was a Mexican place in Tempe, across the street from Arizona State, where Mona was in graduate school. They made about 80 percent of their revenue selling pitchers of Bud Light to the underaged. The food was an afterthought. Jalepeno poppers. Nachos with mountains of government-issue cheddar. Eating out there, amid the college blowhards and their pointless ruckus, made me feel worldly. And another thing: it was easy to make connections at the Dash Inn, to cut the smalltime pot deals that served as my income.
When she wasn't writing, Mona worked at a Greek diner. She came home smelling like lamb and menthol cigarettes. I loved that scent, though Mona couldn't stand it. She jumped in the shower the second she got home.
As soon as we sat down, my friend Ethan appeared. I figured Ethan would be at the Dash. He was almost always there. We'd been undergrads together at ASU, blood brothers and all that, and we'd both received perfectly useless degrees in sociology. He took Mona's hand in his own and planted a kiss on her knuckles. He knew Mona didn't like him much, so he was always overdoing it a little to impress her.
Ethan had been gaining weight these last few months, mostly in the gut. He blamed his metabolism -- another way of putting it would be that he was drinking too much. Mona told me I should talk with him about this. And I planned to do so, only it was taking me some time to think of how to approach the issue. Ethan could be pretty touchy that way.
I put my arm around Mona and asked him how it was going.
"Well, you know, okay. Things could be better, I guess. I saw Franny this morning."
"In front of her place, you know."
"What were you doing over there?" Mona said.
Ethan shook his head. "She looked perfect, man."
We'd known Franny back in college, before Mona was in the picture. She was a thin girl, sweet, insecure, bad teeth and a heavy hand with the mascara. The Bonesack, we'd called her. Ethan had, too. Then they'd started going out, toward the end of senior year. Ethan had been embarrassed, had played the whole thing down, said they were just fucking, just fuck buddies. Even after it was obvious they were a couple, he refused to acknowledge they were going out. Then she gotten tired of his act, grown up a bit I guess, and dumped him. This was six months ago. He'd spoken about her incessantly ever since, long, indignant tributes to his own wounded vanity.
"She's been getting sun, Timmy."
"What about a beer?" I said.
"Just perfect," Mona murmured.
"A pitcher," I said. "For the three of us." It was always a balancing act with the two of them. I wanted them to like each other. Secretly, I hoped Mona would regard my concern for Ethan as an indication of my loyalty.
We drank one pitcher, then another, and waited for our enchiladas. Mona and I sipped our beers. We hadn't eaten much yet, so we were both a bit loopy. She felt for my hand under the table. "Why is it," Ethan said, "that the good old days never feel so damn good when you're in the middle of them?" A sappy song came on the jukebox and Ethan began to sing along.
"Quiet down," I said.
"I'm 23 years old," Ethan said. "I'm so damn 23 it hurts."
"You should try meeting someone," I said. "Someone new."
Ethan swung his big head toward Mona. "What do you think?"
Mona looked at Ethan for a long moment. A complicated glance passed between them, a glance that said a number of things at once. Said: self-pity will get you nowhere. Said: you don't miss your water till your well runs dry. Said: you should have loved her as a person, not a possession. It was as if she were regarding the part of him too wounded to love anyone, or to love them sufficiently, and I might have seen, from the depth of sorrow in her eyes, that her concerns were broader than this: that she didn't want to be here, in this crap-ass college dive, with a boyfriend she explained to her folks as "very artistic" and "full of potential," but who was, in point of fact, dealing pot out of her apartment.
"Maybe you should spend some time on your own," Mona told Ethan.
But I was missing the connection, of course. I looked at Mona and saw only her beauty and her sadness, which made her more beautiful to me, because it suggested depth of feeling, and the possibility that I might comfort her.
"Easy for you to say," Ethan said. "The happiest couple on earth."
"What about that girl from the sandwich place," I said. "What was her name?"
"The girl from a sandwich place?" Ethan said. "Would you listen to this guy? What are you, the comic relief?"
Mona finished her beer, a final dainty swallow, and excused herself. We watched her sway to the bathroom, her legs making that calm scissoring motion.
"Don't let that one get away," Ethan said suddenly. "She's the real deal."
"I'm working on it," I said. "I know."
Mona returned a few minutes later and Ethan offered to walk us home.
"We'll be fine," I said. "Really."
Ethan shook his head. "That neighborhood you live in, Timmy. Shit."
Mona looked at me and lifted her chin. "We were supposed to have that talk," she said to me.
This was true. We were supposed to have that talk about the future, which meant my plans, whether I was going to apply to graduate school this year or let another deadline slip past. It was a talk aspiring to a greater, more final talk.
Ethan looked at his shoes. "Hey, no big deal. If you guys have something heavy on the agenda."
It was a cheap little guilt trip, horribly obvious, right down to the hangdog grin. But it was also full of loneliness, the brisk hunger not to be alone. And again, I expected that my loyalty might be seen as heroic.
While Ethan waited there on the sidewalk, I whispered to Mona, "He doesn't have to come inside. We'll just say our good-byes and we can talk. I promise."
"Not the point," Mona said. "Not the point at all."
Anthony's girl was in the front yard, hunched on the brown grass. Her face was wet and puffy and her mini-skirt was bunched around her. This was often how her fights with Anthony ended. It wasn't that he hit her. He didn't need to hit her. She did most of the damage just with her own bloated heart.
"What's with her?" Ethan said.
Mona tugged at my sleeve. "Come on," she said. "Let's go inside."
Anthony's girl glared at us with her yellow eyes.
I turned to Ethan. "Don't let all this shit with Franny get to you, man. You have to know when to move on. Listen, I'll call you tomorrow."
"Yeah, hey. I was wondering if I might hang with you guys for a while."
I felt Mona let go of my sleeve. She hurried across the porch and slipped into our apartment.
Ethan stood on the stairs, the darkness fanning out behind him. His face looked like a desperate little moon. The dog next door, a boxer mix that occasionally bit, began to bark savagely.
"Aren't you gonna invite your fat friend inside?" Anthony's girl shouted. "Hey fatso, make a wish." She held up a dandelion and crushed it in her hand.
"Okay," I said to Ethan. "Just for a minute. Mona's tired."
Inside, Mona was perched before the window unit, letting cool air billow beneath her skirt. Her eyes were closed and she looked, for that moment, content. Then she heard Ethan's boots and I could see the skin around her eyes bunch.
I walked up behind her. I had this sensational idea that I might rub myself against her, let her know just how sexy she was. But Mona wanted nothing to do with my desire. She slipped away and hurried into her study, pulling shut the curtain she'd rigged for a door.
"One beer," I whispered, through the curtain. "That's all."
From the kitchen, I could hear Ethan pop one beer, then another. I found him plopped on the couch, with a beer in each hand. "Looks like it's just the two of us, pardner."
"You should take off," I said. "Seriously."
"Come on, now. We're having an apéritif."
I could hear Mona scratching at her notebook and I imagined her little golden shoulders hunched and tense. Outside, Anthony's girl let fly with a round of howling.
"Christ," Ethan said. "What's with her?" He marched to the window and pulled it open and stuck his head out into the warm night. "Shut your fucking mouth!" he shouted.
"You're going to make it worse," Mona called out.
"She's right," I said. "Chill out."
But Ethan had found his mission. He was not blind to his own imposition and now he took it upon himself to handle this problem for us, the problem of the chubby nut case on our front lawn. "Nobody wants you around," he told her. "You've overstayed your welcome. Do you understand? Beat it. Scram."
Anthony's girl quieted down for a few seconds and for that brief interval I wondered whether I hadn't taken the wrong tack with her, after all. Then she began howling, louder than before.
Ethan shook his beer at her. It was an idiotic thing to do.
"You're spilling," I said. "I want you to go to the kitchen and get a sponge and clean that up. And then I want you to head out. I mean it."
"Don't be like that," Ethan said.
I went to check on Mona. She was staring at the wall, taking long, measured breaths. "I told Ethan to beat it, okay baby?"
She nodded, without turning to face me.
When I went back out to the living-room, the door to our place was open. Through the open window, I could see Ethan on the lawn with Anthony's girl. The two were circling one another slowly and muttering the sort of insults that can only end in trouble.
He said, "I got friends in there trying to have a nice, quiet evening, you imbecile."
"Fuck you fatboy."
"Who are you calling fat, you psycho-betty."
"Wipe my ass and use it as gravy on your hot-fudge-faggot-sundae."
I shut the window and glanced down at the classified section left open on the coffee table. Mona had circled a bunch of ads with a red pen and placed my initials next to them. I went to the stereo and put on one of her classical CDs. My first instinct was to pop my head in on Mona again. What I really wanted was to curl up next to her and wait for the trouble to pass. But I felt, somehow, that it was my responsibility to keep Ethan from doing something stupid -- that joining her was a reward I was going to have to earn. When I looked outside, Ethan and the girl were nose to nose, their jaws red and bunched.
Mona called out my name. Timothy.
I knew what she wanted: she wanted me to forget about Ethan and his self-destructive woe. She wanted me to lock the door to our place. She wanted to have that talk about graduate school. It was a perfectly reasonable desire. But I wasn't ready to be improved just then.
Overhead, we could hear Anthony taking the stairs a couple at a time.
Mona shouted, "Don't go out there." At least, I think that's what she said.
But I was already heading for the porch, down the stairs, onto the front lawn. Anthony was a few paces in front of me. For a tall man, he moved slowly, which implied deliberation. His girl and Ethan were no more than a few inches apart. Their bellies were touching. And then -- and this happened with an abruptness no one quite expected -- Ethan pushed Anthony's girl down. It wasn't much, just a light shove. But it caught her off guard and she toppled onto the dried grass and landed heavily on her backside.
Ethan looked proud of himself, that same dumb, half-embarrassed grin he used to wear on those mornings after he'd first starting sleeping with Franny. But then he saw Anthony -- the thick, mottled arms, the slope of his brow -- and his grin disappeared. He began to back up immediately, out into the street, and then he simply turned and ran. I figured Anthony might give chase. But he wasn't that sort of guy. He didn't like to leave the property. His girl shook and spastically wept, and I wondered if I had been right at first, if she wasn't somehow retarded.
I walked toward her, hoping to apologize. But Anthony turned on me. He took hold of my arm. "You," he said. "You." And then, quite suddenly, I was on the ground and Anthony was stepping over me and seating himself on my chest and he weighed a thousand pounds.
I kept saying things like, "Be cool. I didn't do anything. Be cool, man." But he wasn't hearing any of that. He had a queer look of concentration on his face, of needing to complete a task. He pinned one of my arms beneath his knee and held the other one in his fist.
"Be cool," I said. "Come on, man. Chill out."
Then I turned my head, preparing to be punched.
But Anthony did not punch. He turned to his girl. She had quieted some. And now I could hear her crawling toward me, the wet heaving of her breath. Then I saw her face above mine, the spots of angry red acne and smeared lipstick. I watched as she reared back and, with a rattling from her throat, spat on my cheek.
Anthony leaned close. The pores on his nose were tiny black craters and his breath smelled like kerosene. "Do not," he said, "mess with my girl." Then he lifted himself off me and lumbered back to the porch with his girl on his arm, perched there almost primly, as if he were escorting her to a cotillion. I looked up and saw Mona staring through the window. Her big green eyes were sad and unsurprised.
For years afterwards, when I recalled these events, I told myself things would have gone differently if I'd been hurt, bloodied; that Mona would have been given reason, by my injury, to see that I had been, in some misguided way, defending her, defending us. This is the sort of shit I said to myself. It is human nature to say such shit.
What Mona said was this: "You should have locked the door, Timothy."
We were lying on our mattress, trying to settle in for sleep.
"We'll laugh about this someday," I said.
"No," she said. "We won't."
I could feel that something had been broken between us, some bond of trust or indulgence, though I was young enough then to suppose that such breaks, with the proper attention, can be mended.
Upstairs, through the ceiling, Anthony's girl began to wail again. Was it ecstasy or grief? I couldn't tell.
And so I made a joke, just to demonstrate my poise. "She's saying that she wants to spit on me again, that it turns her on."
Mona, who felt good beside me, who felt like every good intention I might have held back then, and whose skin glowed with the absurdity of our evanescent joy, who never failed to giggle at my jokes, now sat up in bed and looked at me for long time, with her hair shining under the moon and her sad, green eyes.
"That's not what's she saying," Mona said. "She's saying: 'Listen to me, you asshole: I have a name. Listen to me: If you don't say my name, right now, this minute, you'll never see my face again.'"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Almond's story collection, My Life in Heavy Metal is out in paperback. His next book, Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America is about obscure candy bars. It will be published in spring. For a full accounting of his various perversions, check out his website.