By William Shih
After nearly three years of marriage, Mona Tsu and her husband didn’t see each other often. Work kept them both busy, on contrapuntal schedules: she in her fourth year of medical school, and Jasper, working in finance, sometimes up to sixty hours a week. Often, they ate their meals separately. They grew accustomed to this, and to talking less and less. Jasper said that they already knew what the other would say, anyway. “We’re that close,” he’d reason, flicking open The New York Times. When Mona lost her engagement ring, it surprised her that she didn’t care. She wasn’t even sure how she lost it, or when. Maybe she left it on the plane when she was interviewing for residencies in L.A., or perhaps the plumber had stolen it when she left the bathroom because she grew tired of watching him. Her husband told her he’d buy her a new one, but an opportunity never presented itself. And Jasper wasn’t exactly the romantic type.
Mona wasn’t on the whole unhappy in her marriage. Maybe, overworked. Strangely, she didn’t look forward to having kids, even though her parents insisted that they wanted grandchildren. It seemed without question the next phase in their married lives. And Jasper was ready, too, almost as if he just wanted to get it over with. Mona wondered how other women did it—gave up their time and lives so easily. After all, she was just getting used to her routine. Living with her husband, working at the hospital. For the most part, her classes were done. She was applying to residencies. She felt she was in a sort of limbo, and the sudden free time irked her. Periodically, she felt a sense of loneliness. Maybe she should have an affair, she mused. Not a sexual one, no. What she wanted was an intimacy her husband couldn’t provide. She wanted to go to art galleries. To listen to Beethoven with someone who got Beethoven. She wanted to fall in love, feel as she once felt when she was younger, un-evolved, and prone to sentimentality. She started remembering Victor Hu.
She had hardly known Victor. He was a schoolgirl crush. But throughout her young life, she had quietly compared all of the boys she dated to her idea of Victor, and what he might have become. He was her standard to which no one could ever measure up. In reality, she and Victor had that one summer together, when they were thirteen. But she remembered those days as some of the best of her life. They met at a summer prep school her parents had made her attend in order to prepare for the upcoming specialized high school exam. Victor was in her class, though there really was no point in him being there. He was sort of a clown. Unlike her, who had always been taught to obey and to do her work diligently, he filled his pages with elaborate doodles. Sometimes she wondered if he was scribbling her name. From her desk, she loved watching him come up with excuses for why he didn’t do his homework, why he felt the need to fall asleep during lectures. He wouldn’t take anything seriously, not even himself, and received a string of F’s, each of which he showed off like a trophy.
In between classes, they had lunch together, sometimes with their classmates. And sometimes, alone. They spent the afternoons roaming the streets of Flushing in the blazing heat, exploring the nearby park, the variety of stores, enjoyed sweets in the many Chinese bakeries. He played the cello, dabbled on the piano. They had once gone into a church where he played the organ for her, and then she played for him. And he thought that she played very well. “Much better than me,” he had declared. He appreciated her drawings, her watercolors, mostly landscapes. They were childish pieces, but he treated them as if they were works by a master, like Leonardo Da Vinci, because he was childish too, and didn’t know any better.
For Mona, that summer ended with the last day of classes. It was early August. She had been given a certificate in honor of her grades. He, reprimanded. On their last afternoon together, Mona felt torn, but ultimately decided to keep her feelings for him to herself; Victor was kind to her, but his intentions, somewhat vague. They promised to keep in touch. To talk on the phone, write letters. But they didn’t. They ended up going to different high schools. She to the prestigious Stuyvesant, and of course, he didn’t make it into any of the specialized high schools.
During her junior year, she tried to reignite their relationship. One day, she worked up the courage to call him, and arranged to meet him one Saturday after his orchestra rehearsal at Lincoln Center. By then, they moved in different circles, with their own friends. He was still kind and jovial. He was passionate about the arts, read Hemingway and Graham Greene, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, concerts at Carnegie Hall. That afternoon, they had gone to see the film Mansfield Park, a loose adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, and he liked it very much. It was endearing how much, though he admitted that he was easily pleased by the sound of British accents. After that day, she sometimes imagined herself as Fanny Price, and he, her Edmund. She admired his sensitivity, his humor. It was like intelligence. And she thought he was beautiful. He had large innocent eyes, boyish features, tiny dimples. A kind smile. Dark hair he slicked back with gel that gleamed under the sunlight. When he went to the ticket window, he was carrying his cello over his shoulder, which he named “Big Bertha,” and asked the teller for its own ticket. Mona couldn’t stop laughing.
“It’s hard to be cool when you’re carrying Bertha around,” he told her. “She’s like my own personal tumor.”
Mona had hoped to recreate some of the magic of that summer, and if they had more time, she thought that they surely would have. They got on well. Shared popcorn. But it was only an afternoon, and an afternoon couldn’t possibly be enough. They both said they had a great time. Again, they promised to see each other more often. Of course, life got in the way, obligations to school, applications for college, the lack of proximity. After graduating high school, she moved to New Haven, to attend Yale, and Victor stayed in New York for college.
During her sophomore year at Yale, Mona decided to contact him again, through Instant Messenger. They began a string of sporadic conversations online. She would usually message him first. He always seemed busy, with an away message that read “be right back,” which lingered for hours at a time, while she sat in front of her computer with a calculus textbook spread open.
One day, she decided to tell him that she had a boyfriend, and that they were serious, just to see what he’d say.
“He might be the one,” she wrote. “He’s Korean, and lovely.”
It made her nervous to even write to Victor, to wait for his replies. And whatever he’d say, she tried to read deeply into what he meant. After a long stretch of nothing, except for the cursor steadily blinking on the screen like a metronome, she finally wrote, “He’s not like you.” Then she added, “Do you know that I’ve been in love with you ever since that summer we were in school together? I think I still love you.”
He wrote back, “You don’t know me,” to which she didn’t quite know how to respond.
At Yale, Mona initially majored in art history, but she didn’t find the material compelling. She felt the professor pushed the class too much towards the study of modern art, for which Mona didn’t see a relevance. She only wanted to study Baroque. Rubens and Caravaggio. Works that were pleasing to the eye. She soon switched her major to economics. Her parents advised her to become an investment banker, reasoning that her life would continue to be comfortable. Her father was a doctor. Her mother, an accountant. Mona was an only child, lavished with the best of intentions, albeit a bit sheltered. Her parents still lived in the suburbs of Douglaston, in the same beautiful home where she grew up, where she had piano and art lessons, spent all that time cooped up in her room, studying. At Yale, she felt free, though she didn’t quite know what to do with her freedom. She still studied arduously, received high grades. She didn’t know how not to. It was by then a habit.
The man she thought she would marry was her Korean boyfriend at Yale, Roy Koo, who after dating her for a little over a year, converted back to Christianity, the religion of his family. Mona never thought this would be a factor in their relationship, but then one day, Roy told her that he could only marry a Christian, which was the problem: she was raised faithless. Her parents were loosely Buddhist, taking up and removing pieces of the religion like jewelry, and only practicing during funerals. She thought that Roy’s demands were odd, for she knew the intricacies of his desires, which were for the most part, very un-Christian. However, he insisted that anyone was allowed to start over at any time. “The Kingdom of the Lord is a kingdom of forgiveness,” he said.
She converted. Prayed with him, accompanied him to church. Ignored the contradictions that didn’t make sense, like Roy did so easily. To her surprise, it was easy to immerse herself into this world. It started to feel natural. Feeling close to God changed her, changed her relationship to Roy. And they grew to understand each other on a deeper level. At least she thought they did. One day, Roy announced that his parents only wanted him to marry a Christian who was also Korean. And since she was Chinese, it would be the end of the road for her. She looked into his narrowed eyes, and he looked away. That was telling. She knew that it wasn’t really a matter of where her family was from. Roy wanted to start over, on a clean slate.
For Mona, the breakup was devastating. She cried for days, went to classes like a zombie, walked alternative routes in order to avoid running into Roy, for she had memorized his schedule. Incredibly, her faith in her new religion didn’t waver. She still went to church (though a different church on the other side of campus), prayed in her room, got comfort through that. She met Jasper at just the right time, through a friend of a friend. It was as if God had answered her prayers. He was a year older, and like her, looking to settle down. And they had enough in common. Jasper was Chinese, the son of a wealthy family from Beijing. Like her, he also majored in economics. She liked that he minored in philosophy. It made him seem well rounded, at first. After graduating from Yale, he started working in lower Manhattan. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. She assumed she would follow, progress. But after she graduated, she changed her mind. She couldn’t see herself in Wall Street, competing against the competitive. She didn’t think she was pretty enough, or vocal enough. She was soft spoken, the type who always and only looked good on paper. So she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps, and returned to New York to study medicine at Columbia University.
Jasper proposed. He had picked the ring out himself. Cartier—something he could proudly show off to his social climbing co-workers, Mona thought. They married in Italy, on a cliff that overlooked the Sea of Naples. It was a beautiful wedding. No one was there except for their parents. There was no best man because Jasper didn’t have a best friend. And she didn’t have a maid of honor, either. But now they would be each others’ best friend. She had her hair done in Naples. Her makeup, she did herself. The dress, she had bought from a boutique in New York. It was pristinely white, simple, expensive. In pictures, her thin arms and hunched shoulders made her look like a fragile bird.
For the rest of the trip, she and Jasper, along with their parents, toured the rest of the country. Italy had the best grapes she had ever tasted. Other than that, the food didn’t interest her, and she didn’t like the taste of olive oil. During meals, she sat scarcely nibbling on dishes her new husband and family praised as some of the best they had ever eaten, imploring her to try them. “Eat, eat!” they said. It only made her want to refuse more. They visited Pompeii. Milan. Venice. It saddened her to see that Venice was long past its prime, and was now, for her, a deteriorating city, overrun with tourists, havens for tourists, and tour groups—chamber groups that relentlessly played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the streets. She didn’t see a need for Venice.
Upon returning to New York, she and Jasper hosted a wedding dinner for friends and extended family. They purchased an apartment in Battery Park, overlooking the New York Harbor. The apartment was brand new, plain, spotless. A cleaning lady came twice a week. Work took its toll on Jasper. He had already started to bald, and though he wasn’t even thirty, was simulating the habits of an older man. He watched CNN, shopped at Brooks Brothers, dressed in oversized sweaters and khakis. He sat on the sofa, read a variety of papers, magazines, Martin Heidegger. He ate greedily, and didn’t work out; his belly soon grew into a boulder. When he fell asleep on the couch, Mona watched it undulate with his breaths. She usually sat in the quiet, studying, or recently, trying to read a book, almost always a classic. Wuthering Heights. All she could hear was the metronomic ticking of a clock, and Jasper’s faint snoring accompaniment.
It had been more than ten years since she last saw Victor in person. She wondered, would he even remember her? She decided to send him an email. To say hello. Even his reply would be eventful enough, a blip in her constant line of regularity.
Hello Victor, this is Mona Tsu. Do you remember me? How are you doing?
Are you still in New York? If you are, I would love to see you sometime!
He replied quickly, saying how great it was to hear from her, asked what she was up to, and wondered where she was living. He was still in New York, too. He was now a music teacher. She was surprised; it seemed sort of bohemian. It was he who suggested that they meet for coffee. She was ecstatic. Of course she would. She told him anytime was good for her.
Mona usually didn’t wear any makeup, and didn’t see the need to not go as herself. The rigorous hours of medical school had made her appearance irrelevant. She still had a young face, a petite frame. Strangers still confused her for a hardworking high school student. She wore thin glasses, and usually sat hunched over in her chair until she remembered and corrected herself. Her wardrobe was filled with blouses that reminded her of her mother’s. No one ever said that she was pretty and meant it. People said she was smart, very smart. She had friends who lived all over the country, people she laughed with. They didn’t really keep in touch, but occasionally called one another out of the blue. She had joined a gym but rarely went. She thought this was the reason for her round serious face that seemed to get rounder with each passing year. It had a natural gravity to it, which was made worse by thick cheeks that slightly sagged. Her hair, she usually tied up for convenience. It was like hanging up a rag.
He suggested that they meet at a café on MacDougall St. She arrived early. For her, the place was dirty. She didn’t find its old-world atmosphere charming. She thought it had a strange smell of moist cinnamon. But she had already prepared herself for some disappointment. After all, people change, she thought. He could no longer be the boy she once knew. But at 27, he was somehow, still a boy. He came in smiling, wearing a green checkered shirt, sleeves rolled up, skinny jeans, Converse sneakers. He hugged her tightly, smelling of fresh cologne. She noticed that he still had all his hair, slicked back in the very same way with gel. He was taller now. He apologized for being late, and then started to delight her with his self-deprecating humor, and she found herself laughing in a way that revived her. She felt like a child, laughing at such silly things, and being silly, herself. She was impressed by his openness, surprised that they could talk so easily, that it was easy to be herself with him. He asked about her artwork. Her piano playing. All of which she told him she had quit and couldn’t explain why.
“Don’t say that,” he said. “You’re too young to do that. Let’s say you’ve put it aside for now.”
“OK, sure, let’s just say that.”
Of course he didn’t know that when she put something aside, it was aside forever. They talked about their former classmates, teachers. People who were no longer present in their lives. That wonderful summer.
“I’m married now,” she finally told him, but it didn’t seem to faze him. He congratulated her with a brilliant smile. She wasn’t afraid. She could tell him anything. And he was so receptive. He listened attentively, more so than anyone she knew, even Jasper. He wasn’t fake. He didn’t indulge her. It was as if he understood that they were older now, and that loved ones didn’t come as easily. And they were both somehow moved by this. She felt they could become close. Watching him talk across from her, drinking him in, was incredible.
“Are you religious?” she asked.
“Not very,” he replied. “I wish I was. Are you?”
“I think so. Jasper isn’t though. He laughs at me when I go to church. He says I should be beyond that, especially with my Ivy League education. But in secret, I still go when I feel sad, or alone. I feel better.” She smiled. “You don’t believe in God, do you?”
“Sometimes I feel like I do. But look, it doesn’t matter what I think. You found something special right? That’s why you go to church.”
“So if it works for you, then it works. Don’t let anyone get in the way of that.”
She could have cried. “Thanks for saying that,” she said. Jasper would have questioned her, Socratic Method.
Victor paid for the drinks, which surprised her. The men she dated had always split the bill in some way, especially on their early dates. She had dated only smart men, precise people who calculated these sorts of things, who understood fairness, not chivalry. But Victor wasn’t educated in that way. “This is nothing,” he insisted, reaching for the bill before she could lay her hand on it. She thanked him more than necessary, and offered to pay the next time, to which he politely nodded.
They took a long walk, around the West Village. It was warm enough. She talked about her marriage, revealing that she wasn’t exactly as happy as she thought she’d be.
“Why? Be specific,” he said jokingly. But again, he listened seriously.
“I thought married life would be, I don’t know, different. But Jasper was never romantic. I don’t know why I thought that would change after we got married.”
“I’m sure he loves you in his way, Mona. What’s there not to love?”
They sat on a bench in Washington Square Park. She watched a group of kids play tag nearby. One of them screamed, “You’re it!” Everything poured out. She told Victor that she felt trapped. She hated being in medical school. The long hours, how everyone seemed to mistreat one another. The heartless competitiveness, her classmates’ seemingly sole desire to get ahead, but to where? No one had the faintest idea. The disrespectful nurses they had to work under as students. In only a few years, the tables would be turned.
“It’s like shoveling shit every day,” she said. “I can see why doctors grow to be terrible to nurses, because when they were in medical school, nurses were terrible to them. It’s a hierarchy of power.”
But Victor said, “You must figure out a way to stop the terribleness then.”
“Be kind, smile. Be like how you are now, with me.”
He made it seem so easy. She laughed. She loved him for his naiveté. He appeared so uneducated about the world, so inexperienced. He had been somehow protected. But how? She suddenly wished that she had always been that protected, too. They made plans to do things she always wanted to do: go to see paintings at the Frick, concerts at Carnegie Hall, or a Rossini opera at the MET, plans she promised this time would go fulfilled. She suddenly imagined having this alternate life. It felt incredibly easy. Jasper there, oblivious. Then she panicked.
“I can’t fathom becoming a mother,” she blurted out. “What would be the point? I haven’t even started my career, yet. I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am. Why would I give it all up? It’s impossible.”
“I love kids,” was all Victor said. “I can’t wait to have kids of my own.”
“You’d probably be good with kids. I can see that.”
Victor sat up and winked at her. “I’d turn them into little musicians. Maybe we’d start a string quartet. We’ll see.”
He walked her further into the park, where she was to meet Jasper underneath the Washington Square Arch. It was by then, dark and wet and cold. On this particular day, Jasper got out of work early, but he was still late, as usual. According to Jasper’s message, he was just then about to hail a taxi. She didn’t understand why he always took so long. All he had to do was drive up from Battery Park. He probably stopped home to watch the evening news. His lack of efficiency perturbed her. She hated waiting. Especially for Jasper.
“Am I going to meet Jasper?” Victor asked.
“Better not. I don’t know when he’ll even get here. And I don’t want to hold you up.”
“He thinks that I’m here alone.”
“Oh, I see.” Victor smiled at her.
“It was really wonderful to see you, Victor. You really don’t know how wonderful. Let’s meet again, soon.”
They hugged each other goodbye. If he had kissed her, she wouldn’t have stopped him. He had lived up to what she’d hoped for. More. Throughout dinner, she felt renewed. She didn’t even chastise Jasper for taking a call while he was having his dessert. In the days after, she went to classes inspired again. She saw a book on Beethoven at a used book store and thought of Victor and emailed him to let him know. They set a date to meet later that week. Of course, things came up. He had to cancel because he was swamped with students. Then she had her exams. Finally, in a bold moment, she took the initiative to make plans once more.
The week before she was to meet Victor, Mona accidentally found the ring. She had dropped it in a shoebox where she kept old receipts. Mona thought it was funny that she rarely wore the ring. It really was a beautiful design—emerald cut and flanked by two baguette-cut diamonds, set to resemble the same ring as the Princess of Monaco’s. That’s what Jasper would tell his colleagues. Mona had found his taste unimaginative. She thought of wearing it when Jasper came home from work. It would certainly surprise him. She could see his reaction; he would be so relieved. Then she put it back into the box and buried it underneath the papers.
She met Victor again at Washington Square Park. It felt like they were continuing from where they left off. They took a walk. She felt restored. It was a warm day, and bright, the first after what had been a long string of cold and rainy days. Mona was just getting over a sinus headache. It was April. People were sick of the winter. Now they flooded the streets wearing shorts and t-shirts. Mona and Victor went for gelatos at an Italian café, sat at the opened windows, people watched together, like Europeans, she said. Victor settled back, lounged in his chair. He kept his sunglasses on. They talked about the books they read. He carried with him a recent issue of The Paris Review. She’d brought him a copy of Anna Karenina. “To inspire you,” she said. It was very warm. It felt so much like summer.
They roamed the streets, through SoHo, past stores, scores of tourists. The hours passed easily. They ended up at Le Petit Café, a much needed place to sit, rest their feet, and share a pot of tea. The café smelled of sweet baked goods and bergamot. It felt like old times, like the unlived old times she had imagined so much that they were almost memories. She felt a void slowly being filled. She liked the way he ordered their tea, his salmon, her salad. He was good at talking with the French waitress, which was something Jasper could never grasp. They must have seemed like a pleasant couple. The waitress brought over a crème brulee, compliments of the house. He then ordered a glass of wine for each of them.
“This wine is nice,” Mona said.
“I like it too.” Then, “Your face is red.”
“It is? Oh God.”
“Don’t worry. Mine is too.” But it wasn’t.
“It’s really so good to be with you, Victor. We should have done this sooner in our lives.”
“It’s good to be with you too, Mona.”
He leaned in, but she couldn’t read his expression. He said nothing.
For most people, it was too beautiful an afternoon to stay inside. Mona and Victor became the only people left in the café. They talked about their families, growing up in New York. She wanted to reach over, touch his hand, caress it. They talked about countries they wanted to visit, like Spain and Greece, even toyed with the idea of going together. Mona felt a rush of possibility. Then she thought of Jasper, sitting alone in his chair, reading the paper, none the wiser. She suddenly found herself blurting out that French and English writers didn’t appeal to her. She dismissed the philosophers that Victor admired. John Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Sir Thomas Moore. All of them. They were too old fashioned, she said. German ideologies were current and intrigued her. She learned this from Jasper. She was practically quoting him word for word. Victor was more reserved about his opinions; maybe he thought that Mona knew something he didn’t, and was afraid of appearing ignorant. She saw a window. She could shatter it. She started in with her gripes about America. How she detested waste, inefficiency. She drew parallels to medical school. Not everyone belonged there. Some people were too slow. Not everyone was equally intelligent. It made things needlessly difficult—having to communicate took too much energy. And she couldn’t wait to get out. Victor took this in, looked vaguely bewildered by her thoughts.
“Aren’t you excited about practicing medicine?” he asked.
“I’m not so sure anymore,” she said.
“Will you open up your own private practice?”
“Eventually, I’ll have to.”
“Sure you will.”
“I will. I don’t have health insurance, and I’m in desperate need of a checkup.”
Mona laughed. “Well good. I like to work with young people.”
“What do you mean?”
“I find it easier to communicate with the young. The elderly take advantage of the healthcare system. At times, I feel like they don’t deserve the care that they get.”
Victor cocked his head to the side. “They need it, of course?”
“I suppose they do,” Mona admitted. “But trust me, they’re terribly difficult to work with. All their neuroses. And it’s not like they get better either. There doesn’t seem to be a point except that it wastes a lot of time and money. Not to mention energy. All this, just to prolong the inevitable.”
Victor leaned back in his chair and laughed uncertainly. “You’re kidding right? You have to be kidding. What do you plan on treating then? Headaches?”
Mona laughed too, unequally. “No, I’m not going to be that kind of doctor. I’m studying to be an ophthalmologist.”
“An eye doctor.”
“So an eye doctor, who only treats young patients, with no patience for the elderly.”
“Victor, what are you a child?”
“So you’ll be an eye doctor who doesn’t see.”
“Ha-ha, very funny. I know it sounds horrible, but I’m just being honest. I can be honest with you, right?”
His face hardened, but he forced a smile through it. Then he suddenly relaxed again and the tension evaporated. Color returned to his cheeks. He said, almost jokingly, “If the honesty’s appropriate.”
“Victor, it’s not just me who feels this way. I’m in the field and I’ve had this discussion with numerous professionals, doctors and would-be doctors, and they all feel precisely the same way. I’m just fed up, and I’m at a point where I’d rather work with people like you and me.”
“You mean healthy.”
“I mean productive people. People who can actually contribute to society.”
Victor waved a hand in the air as if he were trying to drive away a mosquito. “You don’t mean that.”
She looked him in the eye and said, “I do. I assure you that I do. Science has allowed for life expectancy to increase and that poses a unique problem because now, there are more and more people who aren’t contributing to the world, you get what I mean? They’re just existing for nothing, draining the rest of us as they themselves waste away.”
Victor rolled his eyes. “Well I’m sorry. You can’t pick and choose your patients. You’re obligated to treat everyone the same. You took the Hippocratic Oath didn’t you? You don’t want to be a hypocrite, do you?”
“I’m not the one that’s being a hypocrite, Victor.”
“Well you’re not here with your husband.”
Mona was taken aback. “That’s a different story.”
“Look Victor, I’d rather make a difference.”
“But you are.”
“No, I mean a real difference.”
He gave her a blank stare. He looked as if he was struggling with something. Perhaps for a way to forgive her in his eyes. But she refused to let him. She went on, “I hope you know that the reason why you don’t have healthcare is because senior citizens have consistently voted against it. They already have Medicare. I guess they figure why allow millions of new patients to see their own doctors? I mean God forbid, they’ll have to wait a bit longer in the waiting room.”
“Well then I guess all they’ve done for us doesn’t count for anything?”
“Victor, we should be sending people to the moon, developing alternative fuels for oil, fighting world hunger. But we can’t because all this money is going to a healthcare system that the previous generation selfishly created for themselves.”
“Think about your grandparents, Mona,” he said, folding his arms. Now he sounded like a parent.
“Well what about them? My grandfather’s dead. And to be honest, my grandmother doesn’t do anything. She just sits around all day, waiting to die. Well it’s the truth.”
“Maybe you should visit her and ask her yourself.”
“I don’t have the time.”
He went silent again. Mona suddenly noticed that the café smelled of bergamot. Music was playing in the background. A sea of Ravel-like strings haunted the place—the redundant Bolero. It was like an incessant heartbeat. Outside, crowds of people passed the large window, droves of them, enjoying the sun. Mona saw that Victor wasn’t used to thinking so objectively. Not like Jasper.
“What about your husband?” Victor finally asked, as if he were reading her mind.
“What about him?”
“He can’t agree with you.”
“Actually he does, now that I think of it. Jasper’s even more philosophical about it. He reads Heidegger.”
“And you do too?”
“No, not as much. I get the gist of it from Jasper. He’s very knowledgeable.”
“When you get older, your perspective will change. I know it.”
“Well I think I would just make way for the next generation.”
“That’s sick Mona.”
“No it’s not. I’ve thought about this a great deal. Much more than you have.”
“Clearly you have, that’s why it’s sick.”
“Well what do you suggest we do then? We have an overpopulated world competing with a limited amount of resources. The less people who work, the less resources we can utilize, resources that can be allocated to more immediate things. Do you know how much it costs for even an ambulance? And do you know how much the elderly abuse the use of ambulances? Hospitals? Nursing homes? It’s expensive. And it all adds up. And we’re the ones paying for it. The whole setup’s preposterous. And it won’t last. Actually, it’s dying. And by the time it gets to us, we’ll be screwed. How do you feel about throwing your money into that?”
“Hell, I’d pay more if I could.”
“Now you’re just being foolish. And trust me, you can’t afford it. You don’t even make enough to support yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing forget it. Look, if you’re getting your third quadruple bypass surgery, you should just die. There’s no point in keeping someone alive like that. Would you want to stay alive like that? I wouldn’t.”
Victor was shaking his head. “It’s not up to us to decide, Mona.” His voice contained within it, restraint and disappointment.
“I don’t understand why you’re taking it so personally,” Mona said. “You’re young and healthy. Productive. An asset to society. Why can’t we just agree to disagree?”
“You don’t know me, Mona. I’m an asset to no one, least of all society.”
Mona felt as if she were suddenly becoming derailed. She laughed, but it was strained like a string being harshly pulled and tuned. “Now you’re just being ridiculous. That’s how you’re so happy. Aren’t you the least bit concerned that there’s going to be nothing left for us?”
“There isn’t,” Victor said. “I think that we’re done here.”
He was no longer looking at her. He signaled for the check.
“Look Victor. Victor, look at me.”
His eyes were fixated on a painting. It was a simple still life. Nothing exceptional. Just a dark vase of yellow carnations. But he looked as if he were engulfed by it. The bubbly waitress came by to clear the plates. “How was the food guys?” They didn’t answer. Mona looked away too. Then she reached for her bag.
“Psycho,” she heard him say, just barely.
“What did you call me?”
“I heard what you said. I can’t believe you just called me a psycho.”
“I was just kidding.” His voice sounded halting and it was suddenly foreign to her.
“No you weren’t kidding.”
“Mona, why the hell are you here with me?”
At that instant, Mona saw the knife beside her on the table. Then it was gripped in her hand, and she, lunging across the table that stood like a barrier. She was stabbing his chest, digging in deeper and ripping him apart methodically, like she did the cadavers in class. Flesh and blood didn’t disgust her anymore. She had seen so much. And she was numb to it all, completely numb. That’s what allowed for her sense of clarity, she thought. Victor, on the other hand would be weak and faint of heart. Utterly useless. His sentimentality, a different sort of ignorance. Perhaps even the worst kind.
“I’m going to get a cab,” she announced to no one in particular.
“Mona, I hope you enjoy your life,” he said. “You’re a stupid stupid girl.”
Before she could say another word, he was already standing. His chair scrapped violently across the floor. He tossed a couple of bills on the table, then made his way coolly and quickly out the door. Mona felt seized by the urge to run after him. Maybe even apologize. Tell him that he simply misconstrued what she meant, that she wasn’t some monster. But she didn’t. She had to allow it to finish. Let him go, she kept telling herself. Outside, Victor had run into a friend, an Indian girl who was young and beautiful. They hugged and talked excitedly. Mona was surprised by Victor’s sudden change of expression, smiling the smile she once thought was reserved just for her. She watched him lean in, whisper into the girl’s ear. Then the girl looked inside the café with mild curiosity. She briefly met Mona’s eyes, then turned back to Victor, laughing hysterically. Mona was reminded of a time a saleswoman wouldn’t acknowledge her in a boutique, treating her as if she couldn’t afford the merchandise. Victor led the girl across the street. He didn’t look back. Mona continued to stare out the window, resigned and even relieved that she would go back to the life she already possessed. To Jasper. Someone who ultimately understood her. People continued to pass the café. The sun was setting. The summer-like day, already gone.