“Go on,” I said. “I’m half listening.”
He smacked me on the butt, then leaned in and kissed me softly on the back of the neck while his arms circled around me.
“They are called ‘stranglers’ because they grow on host trees, which they slowly choke to death.” He squeezed a little and I winced. “Living proof that clever opportunists get along just fine, human or plant. By the time the host tree is dead, the strangler fig is large and strong enough to stand on its own, usually encircling the lifeless, often hollow body of the host tree.”
My eyes were closed and I was leaning into him, liking the feel of his warmth.
“What exactly is the point of this lesson?” I asked.
“They say a person lives up to their name.” His voice was muffled against my neck.
“Got it,” I said. “Fig crazy, Fig strangles the life out of me. Fig…”
He was fucking obsessed with Fig Coxbury. Warning me about her, watching the odd things she did. Don’t think I don’t know who you are, Darius. I know you get hard for crazy.
The following week I tried to steer clear of our newish neighbor. I wasn’t used to having a friend live so close, close enough to where I felt obligated to invite her in if she was lurking around the rose bushes looking sad. I didn’t mind her as much as everyone else seemed to, but I was getting tired of hearing it—the constant cautioning. What was it exactly that they were seeing and I was not? I liked people, I wanted to help them, but not at the expense of my relationships. They were right about some things—she’d moved in six months ago and she was starting to resemble me more and more. She’d even dyed her hair black like mine. I’d not have thought anything of it, except the following week when I went to the salon, my stylist told me that Fig had come in and asked for the exact color formula he used on me. Distance, that’s what I needed. It was oppressive to have someone watching your every move, be it through their blinds or right on the street corner. And then I got the call. My dad wasn’t doing well. I booked my ticket, all thoughts removed from Fig, and Darius, and strangler trees.
My father was dying. He’d been dying for two years now, I’d lost count of the times I’d said goodbye. I flew to Phoenix, renting a car at the airport and driving the rest of the way to the hospital in Mesa. Cancer is the most awful thing, a slow eating monster. What was once a man is now a shadow. A hard thing for a child to behold.
On the first day there, he grabbed my hand between fitful sleep, then all of a sudden, his eyes opened and he said, “Darius is wrong. Bad.”
I balked. My father had always loved Darius. I chalked it up to a nightmare. But, when your mind was already having tremors of doubt, something like that stayed … seemed prophetic. I asked him about it when he was feeling better and letting me spoon soup into his mouth.
“Darius? What? What did I say?”
I paused, the spoon suspended between us. “That he was wrong … bad.”
My father raised his eyebrows. “He has a problem with sex. I can see it all over him. But, he’s a nice guy. You know me, I like the degenerates.”
I frowned at him. “What does that even mean?”
“Eh, everyone has their demons, Jojo, babydoll.” He reached out and rubbed my knee, then looked exhausted from the simple gesture.
“Okay, Dad,’” I said. “Okay.”
When I left two days later, he was crying. It alternated who sobbed the most. But, that happened when you didn’t know if it was the last time you were seeing someone. I was getting used to the goodbye thing. That was so sad.
“I don’t think he’s it,” my dad said when I kissed him goodbye.
“Who, Dad?” I asked, confused.
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say. Did you argue with a dying man, or leave it be?
“There will be one more, but he’ll come after I die.”
“Dad!” I said. “I can deal with the one more part, but nix the death.”
“We all die, Jojo,” he said, sadly. “All of us, filthy humans.”
On my plane ride home I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said. My dad was insane, that was a given. I credited my career to the emotional chaos he inflicted on me as a child. But, he was also usually right. He predicted things, saw right through people. It was terribly creepy. He didn’t believe in a sixth sense and said psychics “licked Satan’s balls for a living,” but I’d always thought he’d been born with foresight. By the time the plane landed and I was collecting my luggage from the belt, I had convinced myself that I was trying to build a case against Darius. It was childish and offensive. I imagined how hurt he’d be. I had to stop this. He was the best man I’d ever known, and I was deeply in love with him. Like clockwork, Ryan texted me.
“Fuck you, Ryan,” I said, under my breath. It was like he had a sixth sense when it came to my emotional turmoil. He de-centered me. Was that even a word? But, he never pried, God bless him. Knew what to say and how to say it. You’d think my therapist husband would be good at that, but he wasn’t. Not with me anyway.
Way to hit the soft spot, I thought.
Dying, I sent back.
What can I do? Are you okay?
I didn’t answer him. I checked my texts from Darius. He’d not asked me that. He’d not asked me anything in the last forty-eight hours after the required: Have you landed yet? And then later: Where is Mercy’s toothpaste? He never called either.