She’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be
My mother: “The Nono thing started when you were a toddler. Nono was your favorite word, and your father and I liked to say that it wasn’t you who’d pulled all of the dishtowels out of the drawer. It was Nono.”
My father: “I guess you caught on, because then you started saying Nono had done this or that. Don’t blame me, I didn’t flood the bathroom, Nono did. It stopped being cute really fast.”
Nono went away around the time that I started kindergarten. My mother told me that she had been sent to the Other Country, and there was no way she’d painted the kitchen wall with dog food and ketchup.
Mom: “And you asked, what other country? I said, that’s its name. The Other Country. It’s a terrible place where they send bad children.”
Dad: “It worked! You stopped being such a terror. And you grew up fine. No lasting damage, right?”
You may be right, I may be crazy
I was ten years old when Nono found me again.
“New penpal?” Mom asked, dropping a bright yellow envelope in my lap. It looked like it had been stolen from the greeting card aisle. It was decorated with brightly colored stickers, and a reddish-brown fingerprint on the back
I was zonked out in front of the TV watching Darkwing Duck, so I made a noncommittal noise. I opened it later, in the hours between dinner and bedtime, and pulled out a single piece of paper, torn from a spiral notebook.
Hi, it’s me, Nono. I miss you and the fun we had. Remember the time we took off all our clothes and jumped into the puddels behind the car wash? Mom was so mad.
Do you want to be penpals? Circle yes or no.
I tapped my pencil’s teddy bear-shaped eraser against the paper, and then slowly circled Yes! On the back of the page, I wrote:
Hi! I want to be penpals. We had fun together but I get in less trouble now, so I guess thats good. I miss you too.
Here are some questions. Whats your favorite TV show? Do you like any boys? Do you go to school where you are and do you hate it?
The return address on Nono’s letter hadn’t included a zip code, but the mailman collected the envelope, and a few days later, I got another letter.
A series of hellos and goodbyes
The letters came weekly through middle school, monthly in high school and college. Nono wrote about her life in the Other Country: her room in an underground hollow beneath a dead sycamore tree; her pet mockingbird, Bella, who slept in a nest made out of baby teeth and bent paperclips; her on-again, off-again ska-themed Billy Joel cover band, Disregard the Danger. Nono still had the knack of getting in trouble, whether it was stealing a trombone from Tip Top Pawn Shop and Mini-Golf, or having a one-night stand with the Lady of Cold Revenge.
We only talked about our separation once. I had gotten in trouble for sassing a teacher. I wrote to Nono:
Totally reminded me of the trouble we used to get in. I miss it sometimes. Not like ALL THE TIME or anything, but I can feel the places in me where you used to be.
She wrote back: Me too, me too. You belong there and I belong here, but sometimes I wish it were different, and that we were different.
We didn’t talk about it again, until Nono stole my credit card.
Before we end and then begin
I’m not sure how I knew she’d done it. But when I got my credit card statement and saw the charges, I emailed her instead of calling Fraud Protection.
Did you spend $113 at Bed, Bath, and Beyond?
She replied immediately. I opened her message gingerly: sometimes opening her emails caused lines of golden ants crawl out of my computer.
Nono: They have amazing throw pillows on clearance.
Me: What do you need throw pillows for? You live beneath a tree.
We’d both been having a hard time lately. Things weren’t going well between my girlfriend Sandra and I, and we oscillated between explosive fights and tense, teary apologies. Disregard the Danger had had its final breakup, mid-tour. Nono had had to hitchhike through the Dagger Wastes with nothing but her trombone, a leaky flask, and a tail feather from Bella.
A few days later, a check arrived in the mail, along with a letter, both tucked into a normal business envelope, with a local PO Box as a return address. There were no stickers, no doodles, no mysterious smudges. It didn’t smell like pine resin or diesel or cumin.
The check had my name in the corner as well as in the “Made out to” line, but it wasn’t my bank. I called: the account was real, and in my name. I had a balance of one hundred and fourteen dollars—just enough to cover the check.
Nono wrote: I found a door through, by the old house. I’m sorry, I should have told you. I won’t stay forever. I just needed a break. I get tired of being the bad one, the one who gets in trouble.
I’d had my own fantasies about going to the Other Country, finding a way through. It usually happened three or four glasses into a bottle of red wine. I’d feel the weight of a phantom trombone in my hands, imagine myself tucked away in a hollow room where the pale fingers of sycamore roots threaded through the dirt walls. It had never occurred to me that Nono might long for public transportation and Friday night takeout and laundromats.
She’d included a phone number in her letter. I called her.
“Hi. It’s me.”
Silence for a moment. Then: “God, I sound weird on the phone.”
I’d been thinking the same thing.
“Come over,” I said.
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”
“Just come over,” I said.
She arrived about twenty minutes later. She stepped into my apartment cautiously, like it was an exhibit in a museum. She reached for things on the shelves without touching them, and avoided my eyes.
“Did you bring anything with you?” I asked. I wanted to hug her, hard enough to squeeze us back into the same body. I didn’t dare take another step towards her.
“Just clothes,” she said. She looked out the window, still avoiding my eyes. “And your letters.”
“OK,” I said. “Here’s the deal: the back right burner on the stove doesn’t work, and the deadbolt on the back door is finicky. Rent’s due on the first, and bills are usually paid by the fifth. Don’t ruin my credit score.”
Nono looked at my reflection in the mirror. Her face was not quite mine, but most people wouldn’t notice.
“Bella needs to be fed fresh grubs. The trombone needs to be cleaned after every performance, and if you treat her well, she’ll teach you how to make her sing.
“And don’t forget to water the tree. She likes tears.”
“Don’t forget to water my plants. They like… water.”
She nodded. My skin itched madly, all the spots on my body that she once inhabited.
“The keys are by the door,” I said. “Lock up when I leave.”
Tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems
The development I’d grown up in had expanded, new streets eating into the old pastures and fields that had once lined it. But the old sycamore tree that had stood behind the houses was still there, having miraculously been spared from the bulldozers.
The trunk had split open years before, though the gap had always been too narrow to squeeze through — I’d tried plenty of times. But as I got down on my hands and knees to examine it, the hole seemed to dilate. I could hear a mockingbird singing, a low whistle that sounded like an uptempo version of Piano Man. As I wriggled though, I began to hum along.