“Why didn’t you ever marry my mom?”
Monica had entered the kitchen with all the grace of a fifteen-year-old.
I dropped the plate into the sudsy water and looked out past Monica into the living room.
“It’s okay,” she said. “They went out to get their marriage license and watch a movie.”
I began washing the plate again.
“I never asked her,” I said.
“I’m asking why you never asked her. You’ve been friends since childhood.”
“We’ve been friends since the day we were born.”
“Mom said your mothers shared the same hospital room.”
“According to the story your grandma always told, Georgette and I shared the same incubator for a week.”
“How is that even possible?”
“Our rural hospital had only one.”
“Mom was a month premature, but what was wrong with you?”
“I wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t look around, wouldn’t cry. They put us together to help each other.”
“Did it work?”
“She improved and a week later they tried to remove her from the incubator. Your grandmother said the doctors had to pry our hands apart. That was the first time she went away from me. That was also the first time I cried. So it helped me indirectly.”
“Then why didn’t you ever ask her to marry you?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“Can’t be that hard. Just say it.”
“I mean I don’t know why not. I just didn’t.”
“What does your mother say?”
“She says you’re impossible too.”
“About why we never married.”
“She says because you can’t marry yourself. Whatever that means.”
“Wuthering Heights was always her favorite book.”
* * *
Monica had tired of talking to my back. She overcame the compunctions of youth and started drying the dishes.
“What does the book have to do with what mom said?”
“Haven’t you read it?”
“Your mother never made you read it?”
“Mom never made me read anything.”
“Because her mother forced her to read all the time.”
“So what does it mean?”
“You’ll have to read it for yourself.”
“So you don’t force, you just manipulate.”
“I encourage. So don’t read it then.”
* * *
Monica had the attitude of a teenager but still the hands of a child. Her fingers clumsily rubbed the towel across the silverware. Her nails were small and splotched with faded and peeling nail polish of various colors.
“I did read Jane Austen, though,” she said, her hands getting lost in the folds of the dish towel.
“What Bronte sister wrote that one?”
She stopped drying and looked out the window into the gray sky.
“You must mean Jane Eyre,” she said.
“What did she write?”
Monica returned to drying, a little too vigorously, and said, “You’re teasing me, Uncle Cliff.”
“Maybe. Or I’m teasing them.”
I pulled the plug in the drain and rinsed the suds from the sink.
“You know my name is not really Cliff. That’s just what Georgette always calls me.”
“You always signed your letters ‘Cliff.’ And you always called her ‘Kitty’.”
“You’ve seen our letters?”
“I found them in a box in the garage.”
“I’d like to read them.”
“Don’t you have yours?”
“I gave mine to her before her first marriage.”
“To Heath’s dad?”
“Yes. Your mother was going to call her first son Heath and her first daughter Heather because of that book. Why did she name you Monica?”
“My dad’s grandma’s name. What is your real name?”
I told her my name.
“Cliff suits you better.”
Monica draped the damp dish towel over the handle of the oven door.
“I’ll go find those letters,” she said. Then she stopped and looked me coldly in the eyes and said, “Don’t you dare tell my mom I helped you do the dishes. She’d be very disappointed in me.”
* * *
Three days later, after I had served as witness at Georgette and Stewart’s civil wedding ceremony, I was doing the breakfast dishes before heading to the airport for my flight back home.
“That’s why Stewart likes you,” Monica said. “He doesn’t have to do the dishes as long as you’re around.”
“Nothing wrong with doing the dishes. It gives me time to think, and it’s useful.”
Monica had her school books in her arms. She came closer and gave me a half hug across my shoulders. Between two textbooks I saw a tattered library copy of Wuthering Heights.
Crossing into the living room, Monica turned back and said, “Don’t worry Uncle Cliff. The way mom goes through men, you’ll have other chances to marry her.” She paused and almost blushed when she added, “Not even death could end your friendship.”
I smiled and said, “But marriage certainly would.”
She laughed and ran out the door, ran off to school, ran off across the sweeping moors of timeless adolescence.