To These Guys

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“Not my type,” she told me simply over instant coffee at my desk. Blue was blond; her surnames were Spanish. He liked guns.

I had had the urge once or twice to put my arm around her, but some
unexpected wisdom of which Monica must have been the source warned me against it. On the quiet, hermetically sealed BART subway beneath the
San Francisco Bay, I would set my textbook aside and wonder at the way each of us offered native knowledge of a world that had existed only as a suspicion in the mind of the other. There was an absolute safety in our friendship: we knew no one in common, had never known anyone remotely like each other. All my friends were in college or law school; all of hers were junkies.

I didn’t know much, but I knew I didn’t, and I knew Monica knew more. Born a WASP, adopted by Jews, runaway at sixteen to a series of Catholic marriages, to addiction, prostitution, prison: beside her, I was a baby. But Monica’s life hadn’t hardened her; it had worn the hardness off her: when my grandfather died, I was frozen, unable to respond, but Monica cried. Though she rarely allowed me to see the edges of the chronic depression that was the basis for a disability claim amply documented by our consulting psychiatrists and several stays in the Napa state mental hospital, I sensed something in her I’d seen only in much older people: that no time remained for affectation or pretense. She’d been pared down to — or painfully, past — essentials.

When Monica got disability and a six-month retroactive check, she took me out to her favorite bakery, the Court of Two Sisters. We sat down on the Union Street sidewalk with a box of French pastries and enjoyed them so audibly that a blind man would have thought we were fucking. Powdery old rich ladies strolled by, wrinkling their wrinkles at us. Monica stuck a chocolate tongue out at a woman in a white fur.

And then she dropped out of sight for three months. Turnover at Legal Aid had landed me twenty new cases, a raise, and an office with windows that faced the back of Jack-in-the-Box and its vents that belched great clouds of beefy steam into the canyon between the old concrete buildings. I had tried to find Monica, but she’d moved again. I would sit at my desk with her file spread out in front of me, as if a clue to her whereabouts would rise up magically from the papers that bore her name. I wondered whether she’d discarded me now that I’d got her on disability; I checked periodically with the County Registry for any record of her death. In the meantime I’d put together my applications for law school. The idea of New York had got stuck in my head, so unlike most of my contemporaries, I’d tried only NYU and Columbia, knowing that one way or the other, the decision would be made for me. It had been five months since I’d last seen Monica. Six, seven, eight.

A Monday in late January. I dragged in late, signed the time sheet and waved hello to Sandy, the receptionist, who had dealt with each of the permutations of human life while raising six children and spending fifteen years at our front desk, and who was now answering three phone calls at once. She covered the mouthpiece with a broad age-speckled hand to warn that I had a “new one” waiting for me. “Call 911 if he’s any trouble,” she added. An office joke; 911 was Sandy’s extension.

I opened my door a crack. There at my desk sat the new one, a slender Mexican man in his late twenties with a wide-brimmed densely woven white Panama hat and a black cane across his knees. The hat brim lifted back with slow insouciance, and dark sullen eyes, a hooded challenge, appeared below it.

“Mike ... ?” It was Monica’s voice, coming from out of view. “Mike, I want you to meet Ray Rodriguez, my husband.”

“Husband?” I said, moving awkwardly into the room. “Well congratulations!” Monica flung her arms around me and kissed me full on the lips. I extended my hand to Ray Rodriguez; he let his eyelids droop and allowed his hat brim a slight dip of acknowledgment.



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