On the last day of Mona’s life I told her she’d make a great cop, and her daughter gave me a dirty look that lasted after she looked away. Everyone else in the room laughed. I hadn’t meant it to be mean or funny; I’d only meant that I thought Mona was fair and wouldn’t be afraid of getting yelled at by other cops for standing up to shitty cops. I could actually imagine her thriving in that role: the cop in front of whom other cops were afraid of misconducting themselves. I admired Mona’s ability to have confrontations—they didn’t seem to make her nervous at all. I am usually trying to figure out the fastest path to defuse even the smallest ignition no matter the cost to my dignity; I can’t stand being yelled at and wonder how much of my life has been shaped by my avoidance of raised voices. Mona was always standing up to large and small injustices at the farmers’ market where we met and worked, insisting on accountability for a case of ruined kombucha that hadn’t been properly refrigerated with the same vigor that she demanded paid leave for Brynn’s mastectomy. She would have understood what I meant by the cop comment; she would have known it was a compliment because we had that ability to fill in each others’ blanks with learned sensibilities. It was different when we were trying to hurt each other. Once she told me, You don’t even have a personality, during a dispute over the Chinese food order for a staff party, and it continues to haunt me like she knew it would.
Mona was twenty years my senior and drawn to me, she said, because I reminded her of herself. Sometimes it did feel like I was mismanaging the health of my own future. There was a magical terror to my frustration: I held onto her socked feet and imagined I was a tree sending her health, sending her some of mine while she slept. Surely my intention, push, prayer, had to go somewhere. Mona had taught me that trees send each other nutrients through underground systems of mycelium and that they’ll keep trying to nourish nearby stumps long after they’ve been cut.
Visiting Mona while she was mostly unconscious felt like reporting news to a childish fairytale queen—one who refused to interact with the world until I told her inspiring enough anecdotes. I liked to tie my stories back to Mona at the end of each recitation: I told you this story about Kim being kidnapped by a police officer because it made me realize that you actually would make a great cop! “You would make,” was key to my phrasing. I always focused on the fact that she still existed; she still was Mona and could, therefore, still make a great cop. The possibility of future endeavors was something I refused to relinquish; there were still croissants to dip into rice pudding and new careers to embark on. I was superstitious like my grandmother thumbing her evil eye, like my mother knocking vigorously on wood. I kept “You would have made,” or “I wish we had,” out of my mouth as if that kind of talk would feed the death machine itself. In the spirit of changing the things that I could, I feigned calm optimism, and Mona rested her eyes.
I sat on Mona’s bed with her daughter Stephanie, each of us on either side like parents soothing a nightmare. The bed itself was a thing on wheels in the front room of Mona’s New Orleans shotgun house. Big, south-facing stained-glass windows dappled the room in colored light like final touches added with a small brush. The building sat behind the fancy Jesuit school for boys and was surrounded by sidewalks exploded with cypress knees and potholes the size of baby pools.
I thought about removing myself from Mona’s illness only once, on St. Patrick’s Day nearly two years earlier. I squatted on my chemo buddy chair like a child, wearing the blanket Mona didn’t want as a cape. I was twenty-eight years old, fourteen months sober, and my best friend was a fifty-two-year-old landscape architect who had a gift for growing edible flowers and was dying of ovarian cancer. Maybe you could use some of the hospital’s art budget for spa stuff, I said to Mona’s nurse, gesturing at a black and white photograph of a rocking chair. I’ve heard four percent of a hospital’s budget gets spent on art, and this is what they come up with?
Mona laughed. Shouldn’t most of it be on the ceiling? She asked. You’d think that’s where it would really be appreciated. She looked at me, and we both looked up at the exact same time, synchronized before the nurse. It would have been a perfect moment to demonstrate an elaborate handshake; we loved our closeness to be witnessed. We continuously celebrated the loneliness lost upon finding each other.
That’s a good point, the nurse replied, about the art on the ceiling. She nodded. I love that. I hate when I point out obvious dullness. The nurse liked Mona’s observation more than mine because Mona’s comment wasn’t nagging and negative. I forget sometimes that people, especially nurses, are doing more important things than mocking mediocre photography. Mona beamed at the nurse’s approval. She never tried to conceal being pleased or furious; she was expressive without trying like she was part tropical plant, a flaming sword bromeliad with a bright red bract growing from her center. Her interactions with the world were immediate and easy. She knew how to make people feel like they were in on something with her, like together they were going to get to the bottom of a mystery. Mona made me reckon with the arm’s length of my own superficial reactions, how I perceived most things people said as hypotheticals. Mona responded without fearing her reactions. She was fundamentally less afraid of her opinions and nature than I am of my own, and without that fear she was able to be present. She was not hypothetical.
Mona had been sober for twenty years. Her chemo sessions felt like the closest we’d ever get to being drunk together, which I sometimes fantasized about. She once described the parties she threw with her photographer friends, endless beer and boiled crabs, and I felt so irrationally angry that I was only five years old while they were occurring—that I’d only ever get the older, sober Mona and she’d only ever get that from me, too.
Before Mona knew she had ovarian cancer, she thought she was constipated. It became a running joke at work: Has Mona pooped yet or what? She’d recently quit smoking and was sure the protrusion from her usually flat stomach was her body’s adjustment to a slowed metabolism. I pressed beet juice for her. Queenie made coconut kefir. Kyonne wrapped her arms around Mona to perform a direct thrust adjustment. We all worked for a farmers’ market and nobody went to the doctor. After Mona was diagnosed and started treatment, our coworkers procured large quantities of apricot seeds and moringa leaves and hoped she would change her mind about the chemo and radiation. Isaac, a hot farmer whom Mona and I had both been interested in at different points, was the most adamant about alternative treatment. He smelled of tea tree oil, sang like wooden chimes, frequently sent me articles about high-dose vitamin C cancer treatments, and got into fights with market cashiers about the ingredients in corn chips.
Mona and I had actually met because of my initial attraction to Isaac when I started at the farmer’s market. I’d asked her what she thought of him when we were alone one day. Did she think it would be weird if I went on a date with a fifty-year-old man who thought 9/11 was an inside job? She told me that they’d dated briefly but it didn’t go anywhere because he didn’t believe in monogamy—for himself, but expected it of his partners—after he’d gotten divorced. Don’t go out with him, she said, and I didn’t.
When Mona first asked me to be her chemo buddy, I called my parents. Sobriety was making me reliable! You’re a good person, my father had said, like I’d told him to say it, and it made me wish I hadn’t called at all. My mother had been a chemo buddy for three of her friends when I was a child. I remember her telling my father that sometimes she thought that she was bringing on their sickness. Most of her friends had cancer, but why not her? Was she causing it? Was she cursed?
It was hard not to feel blame or guilt for my excess of health in the company of a sick friend, especially one with whom I was symbiotic with in both work and leisure. Mona and I worked the same hours, were always trying to eat grocery-store sushi with our hands while driving, were devouring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and experienced similar bouts of rage our drinking had quieted and now occasionally burbled up and embarrassed us. When I met Mona, I was completely out of control of my moods. In early sobriety I was shocked to discover that drinking was the scaffolding of my emotional life. I had to admit I looked forward to nothing else. What a concept to bluntly face.
Mona and I weren’t active in AA. Mostly, I went to a meeting at the synagogue on St. Charles once a month, didn’t speak to anyone, and wept silently for the last five minutes. Mona had been in AA in her early thirties and had met her ex-husband, Jordan, in the rooms. He was still die-hard. Mona was the first person I met who had quit drinking and completely moved on. She didn’t seem to think about it. Had dropped it off a cliff. I wondered sometimes if a potentially terminal illness would give me permission to drink again or ensure that I wouldn’t. My center has never been very strong.
Before our chemo buddy routine started, I read the relevant Wikipedia pages for historical tidbits and quirky etymological snippets. Mona loved my facts about octopuses and art forgery so I wanted to follow that trajectory of her approval, but all I ended up writing down was, First chemo was mustard gas?? (maybe don’t tell her that?) and, Ask Mona if she thinks Chemo is a good name for a pet?
Instead of chemo history, I provided Mona with the gossip she was missing at the farmers’ market. On this particular St. Patrick’s Day, the news was especially chaotic. Bolden Market & Farm was a highly dysfunctional, nonprofit farm education program and specialty grocery store hybrid that attracted employees who would, myself included, best be described as Lost Toys. Isaac didn’t even consider Amy his girlfriend but Amy considered Isaac her life-partner; our boss Peter was clearly obsessed with the young French carpenter, Michele, who built us new picnic tables, but we couldn’t tell if it was paternal or romantic; Danny had stolen two hundred and fifty dollars from the till before his cocaine-fueled road trip to Savannah, but no one seemed to be doing anything about it; Blake was refusing to use they pronouns for Brynn; William had brought home another stray dog he couldn’t afford; and Nora’s husband, Kyle, hadn’t shown up to cater our Party in the Garden fundraiser.
You know he was just glug-glug-glug, Mona said, miming a bottle in her hand, tipping her head back.
Totally, I said, and he lost his job at Cowbell Cafe too. I don’t know, man. He has a serious, serious problem—
But so does she! Mona said. I love Nora but come on! She’s in the bottom of a bottle, too. She parties like there’s no tomorrow.
Did Mona love Nora? I didn’t feel like she did. My chest tightened. I couldn’t ask her, though. That was not the point. How weird would it be if I asked, Do you really love Nora? and forced Mona to clarify her exact feelings and use of the word “love.” Nora rolled her eyes at the things Mona said in staff meetings! Nora hadn’t visited Mona once since she’d taken a leave of absence. Did Mona love us both the same amount? They had known each other a long time. Had Mona asked Nora to be her chemo buddy first? No. There was no way. But could she please clarify that she loved us both but loved me a lot more?
I had stopped talking to almost everyone I knew in New Orleans when I quit drinking. I moved to a new neighborhood. Mona was literally my tether to this new world and it occurred to me then, for the first time, that Mona might die, and with her the only witness of my newer self would also die. That whenever someone dies, a version of you dies as well. A franticness came over me.
Um, okay, also I took two and a half oxycodone last night, Mona blurted out, a guilty little look on her face.
Um, that’s totally okay, I said with gentle authority. You’re allowed to do that right now.
I just don’t wanna, you know, glug-glug-glug. She mimicked the bottle again.
I know, I said, you won’t… but how was it?
Well, she said, sitting up straighter; she was so thin, angular, and dizzy, a weather vane. Well, I needed them, she said, in an exaggerated whiney voice. So…
We looked at each other, smirking.
Okay, it was awesome! she said like a teenager.
Yeah, I said, my hand shielding the side of my mouth, and I hissed, Fuck AA!
Just a little, she said, pinching her thumb and pointer finger together.
Just the littlest bit! I said.
Just the littlest bit of cancer.
I mean, it basically made you do it.
IT FORCED MY HAND!
We laughed hard, loudly, in the chemo room. We didn’t have to be good.
All that morning, Mona and I had talked about getting sandwiches from the good deli in the Irish Channel. It was our familiar chemo-lunch dance: she’d be sure there was a food she’d actually want to eat after treatment, and I would run out before she finished her session, thrilled to procure it and relieved to leave the hospital.
Mona’s daughter, Stephanie, appeared before us. Stephanie is a painter and a pedicab driver and hard to talk to. She is a ready-corrector in conversation, antagonistic, scrutinizing, stupidly beautiful, and always seemed wary of me, like a cat. We are around the same age, and I think that she thought I was trying to make her mom like me more than her. Which, sometimes, I was.
Hi, Mommy, Stephanie said, kneeling before Mona’s chair. Are you okay? I’m sorry I wasn’t here the whole time. She turned her head to me without using her eyes. Thank you so much for staying with my mom. Translation: Bye-bye, Sara.
Oh, we’ve been having so much fun, I said.
Really? Stephanie asked, looking a little bit horrified. I went on the sandwich run.
I only realized that it was St. Patrick’s Day as I was driving to the deli. Mona and I were recovering alcoholics, and if we couldn’t drink on the holiday, it shouldn’t exist.
People in green plastic top hats with glittery shamrocks painted on their faces parted from the middle of the street. I slowed down as a pack of young men continued their course, oblivious or rude. One stopped, unzipped his pants, and began urinating onto the street. The men around him laughed and jumped away, fanning out to the sidewalk. One took a picture with his phone. Then it was just him. One man standing in front of my car, which had many cars behind it. One man, peeing and peeing and peeing.
Since getting sober, I’d started having very dark thoughts about the intoxicated people I encountered. It was helpful to find them revolting because my jealousy was so flammable; my self-preservation swapped out the envy for judgment. Thinking condescendingly seemed to stave off the temptation to drink myself. The smallest slur of speech would ignite this process. The second I recognized it—they’ve been drinking!—I interpreted the action as being thrown in my face. Typically, I was reacting to strangers on the St. Charles trolley who were not interacting with me at all, but somehow, this man doing this objectively shitty thing did not inspire the same condemnation that usually protected me. I passed right through and was delivered directly into the inconvenient hand of jealousy.
From my driver’s seat, I could see the bar, The Half Moon. I used to live in this neighborhood with the good deli. I loved it at The Half Moon. Drinking gin and tonics. Going on dates with weirdos from the hat store. Bringing random people back to my apartment to play “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” on the violin. It wasn’t all pissing myself and falling down the stairs.
The St. Patty’s Day champ continued to stagger in front of my car. He turned back a few times, grinned, and made exaggerated, pointed footsteps like tiptoeing quietly in a cartoon. His friends were gone. There was a steady throng of people moving on either side of the traffic, acknowledging the man holding us up but not engaging. Not touching that, their averted expressions suggested. Everyone has their own friend to worry about.
The cars behind me honked in fits and starts. None of them could see the situation. I was amazed at the trust in this man. He was protected by his drunkenness. Everyone and everything becomes so ridiculous when you’re the one partying. Everyone in their stupid cars with their ridiculous horns and their ugly, hilarious anger. No one wants to be reminded of the other world while they are partying. But that is what I am now, I thought. I am the other world. I am the fucking chemo buddy. I say “partying” like a GPS system. And I am about to burst a blood vessel because I need to get to the good deli, now!
I spotted a parking space out front of The Half Moon, and pulled into it. The car behind me sped up, scaring the man, who dove out of the way. Well then. I looked through the bar’s window. I could see a parade on the TV. My brain started to make noises. I thought, No one else even knows you’re in the other world now besides Mona.
Sobriety can happen in secret. Like a wedding no one photographs. I hadn’t made a big to-do about it—just stopped responding to text messages and moved to a new neighborhood. People left New Orleans all the time and came back. They trimmed weed in California for a year. They lived with their mom in Mississippi. But they came back.
I could almost touch it, my old life. I could be lowering myself to the bar. A napkin would arrive like a perfect spotlight for my shame and story. Mona would forgive me, I realized. Mona would be completely sympathetic—she had had a slip in her twenty years, a month-long bender in Virginia that was worse than the year she’d tried to kill herself with Zolpidem and, after surviving, got sober the first time. She would be understanding and supportive, and we would move on; there was nothing I could do at The Half Moon that would sever our bond, our agreement, our receipt of each other.
This was not about relapsing—it was about a fantasy of restarting this entire period of life; it was about time-traveling to before I knew Mona, before I took the job at Bolden Market & Farm. Before I moved from this neighborhood. Before I fell down the stairs and scared myself into sobriety. This was about forcing a mulligan. Demanding just one more redo like a nervous new nurse trying to find a vein.
This was also a protest against the conditions of my sobriety. What was this trade-off that was happening with getting sober and losing Mona? I hadn’t signed up for this. My first friend in sobriety was being singled out by the dizzy finger of disease and forced into grotesque, intense decay. What kind of cruel and unusual prize was this? I wanted to refuse the waste that love and time and work seems to become when someone new and important in your life is on the cusp of disappearing. What was it even for? I felt the brat inside me growing, nodding, and justifying this line of thinking. This wasn’t fair because I had done a marginally difficult thing. Finding Mona had been my proof that I had done the right thing at the right time by quitting drinking. But how could that be the case if so shortly after we met she became sick? It felt so heavy-handed.
My tantrum slowed. It felt like shaking coins in a can and then setting it down. The understanding that it was petulant to expect only praise and better skin upon quitting drinking buoyed up to the surface of my mind and bobbed there prominently. The fact that Mona’s illness would have occurred with or without my sobriety became scarily apparent to me at the bar—that most things in the world were unaffected by my decision to quit drinking. My sobriety was not going to be cosmically rewarded. It was small and private, like a wish when a clock strikes 11:11. I could, however, infuse whatever was left of Mona’s life with the little bit of mine that had been undeniably enhanced by her example, companionship, and edible flowers. I left the bar and got the sandwiches.
The day Mona died, Stephanie asked me if I was interested in keeping her mother’s underwear, and I said, No thank you. She then said she had some other things she wanted me to take—there was a coat—and walked away. I removed two rings from my right hand and slipped them onto Mona’s fingers. Offerings, gifts, magic, power, I didn’t know. They were the only things I could conceivably shed and transfer energy though. I curled her hand into my hand and kissed the palm. I looked at my rings. They were much too big for her thinned fingers. I imagined the metal shrinking to fit, being absorbed by her body like a tree that eventually grows around the ax that has been left in it. I stood to go and rubbed the ringless fingers of my right hand. The places where the rings had been were sensitive. The space between my fingers, covered for years, were alarmed by new touch. I said goodnight to the rest of the people in the room before Stephanie returned with the coat. I let myself out of the house and into the late afternoon.
It seemed right to part with some very familiar material possessions in that moment, to feel a physical newness, a corporeal absence in preparation for Mona’s absence. As if missing is finite. As if missing someone is a sound emitted that eventually dies down—no, missing is lined by the most mysterious edges. Is someone’s absence absolute when you fail to perceive them anymore? The very particular way that they made you act gets lost and the very particular way that you made them act gets lost. But could those particulars change form and appear elsewhere? I left Mona’s porch feeling confused by my own ideas but letting them unspool. I walked over the cypress knees wondering if the specific, absolute delight that Mona and I found in each other might arrive elsewhere in the world. Was it moving around right now? Is there perhaps a finite amount of exquisite friendship and we had been using some of it up? Was it possible that it could now bestow itself upon new pairs? The magical questions brought me comfort, but what brought me even more comfort was to be wondering things like this at all instead of thinking about beer. Instead of imagining holding a cold beer in a glass bottle, I held the fingers of my right hand with my left and walked home rubbing the ringless spaces, looking as if I had a question and was trying to decide to whom I should ask it.
Rumpus original art by Meg Richardson.