In the end, only three things matter:
How much you loved,
How gently you lived,
And how gracefully you let go
Of things not meant for you.
“Are you in love with Noah, Mercedes?” Cora asked. “I mean . . . I know you love him. You’ve been friends forever. We all have. But are you in love with him?”
Mercedes had wondered since if her response would have been different had she been facing Cora, looking into her big, blue eyes as she answered the question. She didn’t know if she would have been able to hide the truth from her. Cora knew her too well. But Mercedes had been lying to herself for a long time, and she was good at it. She was the mighty stone-face, the tough chick, the sassy Latina, and Cora loved Noah too. She was in love with Noah.
So Mercedes lied.
“Ha! No. Not like that. Never like that. Noah is like my brother. No.” Mercedes heard the lie in the way her accent suddenly appeared when she said “never.” Her r curled, and curled again on “brother,” underlining the falsehoods. Mercedes didn’t speak English at home, but she spoke it fluently, and her accent only reared its ethnic head when she wanted it to. Or when she was full of shit. Mercedes wasn’t selfless. Noah had kissed her, and she had kissed him back. She thought about him constantly. Morning, noon, and night. If it had been anyone else—anyone—she would have stuck out her chest, folded her small arms, and let her feelings be known. She would have claimed him. She would have.
But it was Cora. Brave, beautiful, broken Cora.
Cora’s willowy frame and sweet temperament complemented Noah’s lean height and his introspective nature. Noah’s eyes were the saddest, wisest eyes Mercedes had ever seen. His eyes had always been that way. The wavy, brown curls flopping over his forehead and coiling at his nape softened his angular face with all its sharp edges. He’d buzzed it once, the summer before eighth grade, and he’d looked so naked, so strange, that Mercedes had made him promise never to do it again. It had scared her seeing him that way, as if there were no child left inside him, as if there never had been. But when Cora was around, Noah’s eyes weren’t nearly so sad and nearly so wise. But then love makes fools of everyone, doesn’t it?
Mercedes knew Noah first. She could have said that. She could have called dibs. They met when they were eight years old, two years before Cora moved into the Three Amigos apartment complex. He’d been leaning against the door to his unit, playing with a yo-yo. His knees were knobby and his shorts too short, as if he never grew wider, only longer, and had been wearing them since he was four.
“Hi,” Mercedes had greeted him, her eyes on the bouncing string and the expert way he moved his wrist. He had such patience, such a quiet containment, even then . . .
His eyes lifted, smiling at the corners, before they dropped back to the shiny red yo-yo with the dirty string.
“Hello,” he responded softly.
“I’m Mercedes. You can call me Sadie. I live over there.” She pointed at the door across the hall.
“Mercedes? Like the car?”
“Is it a cool car?” she asked.
“Well then, yeah. Just like the car.” Mercedes nodded seriously. Expensive was good.
“Like the guy with the ark?” she asked.
He flipped the yo-yo up into his palm but didn’t release it again. His brow furrowed as he studied her.
“What guy is that?”
“You know. He had a big ark and put the animals on it because the world was going to be flooded. The guy who’s responsible for rainbows.”
“I’ve never heard of him.” His eyes were wide. “How many animals did he save?”
Mercedes laughed, bewildered. Everyone knew about Noah’s ark, didn’t they? She’d been raised on Noah’s ark and Daniel in the lion’s den and Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. She knew all the Bible stories. It was the only book her grandma—her abuela—ever read to her. They even had a picture of the pope on their living room wall and the Virgin Mary above the toilet, with little candles resting on the tank. Abuela insisted, because it was the only place there was ever any privacy for prayer.
“He saved all kinds. Two of each. A girl and a boy.”
“And the rainbow?”
“God told Noah he wouldn’t ever flood the earth again and gave him a rainbow as a promise.
“Huh. Cool. How long ago was that?”
“A long, long time. About 300 years or so,” Mercedes mused, liking the way it felt to know the answers to his questions. Being the youngest in her family—a family that consisted of her and her parents, her maternal grandmother, an aunt, and two older cousins all crammed into a three-bedroom apartment—meant no one listened to her. It was crowded, and Mercedes was a beloved annoyance.
“Huh.” Noah suddenly looked doubtful. “What if one of the animals died?”
Mercedes didn’t really know what he was asking, so she shrugged.
“What if the girl tiger died? Or the boy lion?” he persisted.
Oh. Mercedes realized what he was getting at. You had to have one of each to have a baby. Abuela had explained that much.
“I guess they didn’t die since we have lions and tigers now, right?”
“Hmm. Maybe that’s why dinosaurs are extinct,” he pondered, rubbing his chin.
“They wouldn’t have fit on the ark, anyway, at least not Brontosaurus,” Mercedes added wisely.
“So only two of each?” he queried.
“Yeah. Only two.”
And Cora and Noah were a pair. A beautiful pair.
So Mercedes lied.
And with that lie, she let him go.