Love in the Time of Mononucleosis
BY DANIEL RIDDLE RODRIGUEZ
The First Girl I Ever Kissed gave me mono then killed herself later. Not entirely because of the mono thing, I’m sure, but I know she felt bad about it because her note told me so.
And in the end, what’s a little viral infection between friends?
The First Girl I Ever Kissed gave me mono. Summer bummer. Spent a month prodding with a toothbrush what looked like cottage-cheese clusters in the back of my throat. I chalked it up to quids and pro quos. Charged it to the game.
The First Girl I Ever Kissed was a South Hayward chick, from a neighborhood where they stitched street corners along the side of their fitted caps and carried long-barrel revolvers in the deep pocket of their Jincos. This was the 90’s and people were getting downed every month. If someone said, “I’d kill for a pair of Air Jordans,” it was more mission statement than hyperbole.
The First Girl I Ever Kissed was a cradle Catholic who prayed for her daddy’s soul. He was an alcoholic who quit the church and disappeared himself into Jameson, trying to drown out his Khe Sanh days. He spent most of his time putting fists through drywall, and tearing about Fairway Park in his big-block—a Mercury Cougar with a soft top and candy-paint drapes—while her mother, puffy-eyed and hopeless, sat quiet. “You can take the man out the jungle,” she’d say, crossing herself. “But then you gotta live with him.”
The First Girl I Ever Kissed gave me mono so we could spend a weekend reading the Greek. Of all the Gods, I loved Aries best; of all the men, the Myrmidons. She loved the muse who conjures the conflict, the thousand ships, the face that launches them. “Imagine that,” she said. “A ten-year war, all those poor souls, a battle so fierce even the gods joined in.” She stood a tight-lipped regal at the foot of the bed. It was June and sunlight through the window made everything taste like copper. “All that hubbub over a beautiful face.”
“I guess it is better than fighting over salt,” I said.
“Right?” she said. “Men today are an embarrassment of biology.” She smiled, framing her face with her hands, posing. “So, riddle me this then,” she said. “Am I pretty enough for a fisticuff? I mean, can this face launch a ship?”
I told her she was pretty enough to start a war.
“Pretty enough,” I said, “for a fucking armada.”
The First Girl I Ever Kissed wasn’t white but looked it. She gave me mono and I gave her my heart. I told her she had a face I wanted to stamp on gorilla cookies. I said, “You look like an animal, cracker.”
The First Girl I Ever Kissed gave me mono, but told me if I wanted more, I’d have to put a ring on it. “And I’m not talking Cracker Jack,” she said. “I want a diamond as big as the Ritz!”
She settled for a blood brother—a couple slashes on the palm and a handshake. ‘Til death do us part and a red veil.
“Well, as long as it isn’t black,” she said, fixing her hair in a big Chola bun.
When I asked why not black? she said, “Because black is the color they bury you in, silly.”
The First Girl I Ever Kissed liked to kiss and strip naked. She told me she loved scars. I told her I loved her. But she told me to love someone is an act of violence: every affair is a skirmish, every suitor a potential enemy.
“Listen up, Buttercup,” she’d say. “My eyes are set in the front of my skull, understand?” When I asked her what she was playing at, she said, “Lion. Apex predator.” The way she figured it, Love was for birds and prey animals, so any grass-eater (think: swinging dick) lucky enough to survive an encounter with her, earned itself a booby prize. “I mean, have you even seen these chompers?” She’d say, flashing teeth. “My God, man, do you even know me at all?”
The First Girl I Ever Kissed, kissed me and said, “Truth or Dare, pussy?”
“You kiss your brother with that mouth?”
“With tongue,” she said, flicking hers in and out. “Come on. Truth or Dare?”
“Honestly? No woman’s future husband.”
“Harsh,” I said.
“Yeah? Well, here comes my left blow,” she said, holding fists like a boxer. “You think we’re soulmates but we’re not.”
“You’re no woman’s soulmate, sweetie,” she said. “You’re just bisexual.”
“I like variety.”
“Ditto, kiddo. But nobody wants to marry her best friend.”
“A woman doesn’t want to marry her best friend because her best friend has a vagina. And while vaginas are great and all, she already has one. And women don’t marry people for stuff they already have. . .”
“…at least the clever ones don’t…”
“…I think they call that ‘upward mobility’…”
“But what about love?” I said.
She smiled, gave me a playful tap on the jaw. “There you go being all bisexual again.”
The First Girl I Ever Kissed, kissed me but was a ‘coal burner’ at heart. Not to piss off her daddy (she swears!); she just needed a dick with some stopping power.
“A dick so big it press the pause button,” she said and stood frozen, pantomiming a statue. “Put your whole body on manikin.”
“I hear that’s a myth.”
“Boys hear lots of things.”
“So, it isn’t a myth?”
“Not really, no,” she said, “but you shouldn’t take my word for it.”
She sighed. “If a man believes anything I say vis-á-vis his penis when it isn’t presently inside of my body, then that man is a fool.”
The First Girl I Ever Kissed said, “Marry. Fuck. Kill.” We were sitting at Sam’s Super Burger in the Village. A late-night hamburger joint made to feel like the 50s—real malt shakes, golden oldies on the radio. It was a Friday night. There were muscle cars in the lot, mustard on my T-shirt.
“How’s that work?”
“Marry, fuck, kill,” she said. “You get three choices, three names. Who would you marry? Ditto fuck. Ditto kill. Got it?”
“I got it.”
“You first,” I said.
And there was murder in her eyes when she looked at me.
And there was murder in my eyes when I looked at her.
Ditto lust. Ditto marriage.
“Don’t be such a dipshit,” she said. “It’s unbecoming.” She snagged my fries, slathered them in mayo and pepper. “And besides, we can’t put all our eggs in each other’s proverbial baskets.”
“It wouldn’t be very upwardly mobile of us.”
“Now you’re talking,” she said, wolfing the fries. Salt on her lips. Mayo.
A radically tail-finned Bel Air revved its engine as it passed. A voice over the loudspeaker talking about Hanky Panky.
“Kiss me, cracker,” I said.
She grabbed me by the shirt, pulled me close. “I could have coodies,” she said. “I could be contagious.”
“Patient zero?” I asked.
“A fucking super spreader,” she said, her lips so close I had mayo in my mouth.
“I’m not scared,” I said.
She smiled, snapped her teeth. “You should be.”
The First Girl I Ever Kissed believed some people’s idea of ‘fun in the sun’ is spending all of low tide kicking sandcastles to surf. She believed some people deny the orbit of the earth, and some people own telescopes. She told me she was building a speakeasy in the well of her chest the size of her father’s indifference. “Right here,” she said, pointing right there. “To replace the bum ticker.”
When her daddy left, she kicked in my bedroom door, said, “All right, you cunt, Truth or Dare time.” She was wearing a scoop-neck sweatshirt with her hair all everywhere, and before I could answer she made a face, hawked phlegm, and spit, right then right there, on my bedroom floor. “And you better say ‘Dare,’ motherfucker.”
She reached into her sweatshirt and fished from her bra a tiny sandwich baggie, pregnant with pills—a furious little knot tied on the end. She ripped the bag open with her teeth, spit plastic. She said, “These are blue dolphins, and you’re my pet monkey. Got it?”
“I got it.”
“Good,” she said, grabbing me by the jaw. “Bottoms up, Buttercup.” She bit my lips. She licked my cheek. She stuffed two pills past my teeth.
The First Girl I Ever Kissed was picking a fight with Norman Rockwell and wanted to know if I would come along. “I need a hammer,” she said. “Someone to help me bust a proverbial glass box. You’re in, right?”
In meant hopping into her Jackrabbit for a road trip. A visit to the paterfamilias-in-absentia for the old hurly burly. He was shacked up with a lady nurse he met in recovery, a phlebotomist something, two kids, dead husband, I mean kill me with cliché.
We took the scenic route down Palomares, a road surrounded by redwoods and things that live in redwoods. I’m at the wheel while The First Girl I Ever Kissed rides shotgun, a tiny compact in her fist, putting lipstick to her face like warpaint. “Six months ago, he was practically shitting his mitts and smearing the walls,” she said. “Now I have to drive through an enchanted fucking forest to get to his house.”
Niles is a town straight out of the Saturday Evening Post. A lot of antique stores and American flags, a barber shop with a candy-cane spinner, the main street paved smooth as glass and bathed in sodium lights.
“I want to put this whole town in my pocket.”
“That’s the drugs talking,” she said, snapping the compact closed and throwing the lipstick out the window. “This place is fucking Stepford Wives. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Etcetera.”
We pulled up to a ranch-style home with a rock garden for a front lawn. Potted plants and snapdragons mostly. Creeping phlox. A statue of Saint Francis next to a tiny rock cathedral, stone birds perched in his hands. Her father’s Cougar, midnight blue and waxed to shit, sat ticking in the driveway.
The house had large bay windows—so we crept up slow, cupped eyes to the glass. The inside was a lot of crown molding and wall-to-wall carpet, a leather sofa set with nautical-themed throw pillows, porcelain dolls and duvets. An Ansel Adams print hung enormous on the wall.
“This place is a Better Homes and Gardens nightmare,” she said.
I thought the Precious Moments dolls were a nice touch. “White-trash quaint,” I said, “like Christmas lights in July.”
Her father was in the living room at the far end of the house, sharing a love seat with Phlebotomist—the pair of them watching television, faces washed in blue light. She had a pile of yarn in her lap, Coke-bottle frames on her face.
I said, “They almost look kinda…”
“What?” She snapped.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Normal?”
“Fucking white, you mean?” She said. “Caucasoidal bullshit! He gets sober, finds God, and then files for divorce?” She looked up at the sky, beseeched the Lord. “Father Son Holy Moly, how you gonna square that circle, huh?” She pointed through the window. “And what the fuck is he wearing?”
“A cardigan, I think.”
“You see? He is a pod person. I bet he doesn’t even roll his ‘R’s anymore.”
We sat quietly for a while, watching them. The TV threw odd shadows around the room. Rocks crunched softly under our feet.
“So, what now?” I said.
The First Girl I Ever Kissed smiled and said, “Truth or Dare, pussy…” She pointed to her father’s Cougar in the driveway, and then to the statue of Saint Francis. She snatched the keys from my hand, gave them a shake. “I’ll keep the Rabbit running while you put two and two together.”
Saint Francis wasn’t as heavy as you’d think, and putting him through the windshield of her father’s Cougar was as easy as anything. Easier than confession, I thought. As easy as sin. I meant to tell her so myself, but we were too busy screaming and burning rubber down the street to talk about it.
The First Girl I Ever Kissed told me she wasn’t afraid to die. “Reincarnation,” she said, “is the real nightmare. To rise again. To come back a bug, a bike pump, a butt plug. To be crushed by the monstrous nature of infinity.”
I told her in all likelihood we’d probably just become our mothers. “It’s inevitable,” I said. “Like, destiny.”
But she told me the sound of my voice was ‘destined’ to make her vagina dry. (A total desert, the poor thing!) “The next time you see her blooming face,” she said, batting her lashes dramatically, “will be on the side of a milk carton.” She pulled out her stash, split pills between us. “Pardon me,” she said, “if I thizz myself to sleep forever.”
And the lullaby?
I told her I’d go to her funeral hella high.
I promised to make the biggest scene.
I said, “Mexican funeral, Irish wake.”
I swallowed a double stack, zoned out, and said nothing…
The First Girl I Ever Kissed gave me mono and said, “You gotta pay to play.” She said, “Sometimes love is only lust that stays the weekend, and nostalgia only means you’re never as miserable as you will be tomorrow.” She said, “The only age-defying miracle is death.” She said, “Dare, motherfucker,” and then climbed into a coffin so small I couldn’t conceive the tree they carved it from.
The day of her funeral I was far away and going farther, a skinny sweaty boy, manic shadow everywhere. I gave my body to gravity. Deviated my septum then doubled down. I picked a fight with every vein in my arms, tried to collapse them. She died and I squeezed the needle so hard I fell out and lost all of September, woke up to a daisy-chain of slate-gray afternoons—my tongue a language of fever dreams, my body a field of pockmarks and scars.
The First Girl I Ever Kissed gave me mono then killed herself later, not at all because of the mono thing, I know, because she wrote me a note.
And in the end—what?
‘There’s a storm outside. It rains in July. I have no conclusion.’
—for Sabrina Martinez