Title: Permutations

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Post-RENT. They eat, they laugh, they survive.

Disclaimer: Characters are the property of the Jonathan Larson estate; I own nothing but a deep-seated belief in the healing power of food. Sue me, I'm Jewish.

Permutations

I suppose you could say that Mimi started it all, early on a listless winter afternoon—it must have been a Sunday—when the four of us were sitting around the loft (which Joanne, in what she claims is a tribute to Mark, has started calling it The Loft, insisting that if I listen just a bit closer, I'll hear the difference). Roger, tweaking and tuning, had asked about my dinner plans, and Mark, eagerly jumping up from the application he was filling out, offered The Life for one of our fun-filled group-dining experiences.

"Should I call the ladies?" he asked, blushing a little when Roger smirked, ever amused about Mark's nickname for the dynamic duo of Maureen and Joanne. He was halfway to the phone when Mimi, who had been reading quietly on the couch, her feet in Roger's lap, looked up.

"Not to be a party pooper, but weren't we going to try to budget our flow a little bit? Why don't we just do dinner in?" She carefully noted her place—Sontag, The Way We Live Now, at my recommendation—and went to check the cabinets.

"Well, we kind of have no food...and it's, like, expensive to cook for a lot of people. We're a sizable group. It's probably just as much to eat out."

From the kitchen, hidden from my view by the illegal stove, Mimi's strong assertion: "Mark. I could make us all dinner for half of what it would cost us to go out. If that much." Luckily for him, Roger's back was to the kitchen, because his eyebrow shot up so high it might have been headed off of his face. Mark grinned at him, quickly tilting his head back into his papers.

"That's really sweet, Meems, but you deserve to spend your days off resting. You don't have to cook for us." The conversation might have ended there, had Roger, displaying his usual tact and understanding, not added, "Besides, baby, you don't know how to cook."

That did it.

There was a slamming noise in the kitchen, and then all of a sudden she was standing over him, arms akimbo, chattering madly in Spanish. I don't speak fluently, but I did catch a few words that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap had I been caught saying them as a kid. Well, if I had been saying them in English, I suppose. In any event, Mimi grabbed Roger—who had been cowering and trying to protect his head—by the arm and pulled him to his feet, glaring at us all. "Vamanos al supermercado para—I mean, we're going food shopping. Coming?"

But we all knew it wasn't really a question. Mark straightened up and stopped laughing into his hand. I went to get my coat. Apparently, you don't mess with a Marquez woman on the subject of food.

And somehow, all six of us ended up in back in that apartment a few hours later, devouring some delicious arroz y frijoles, along with a huge helping of what Mimi kept calling maduros, sweet and soft and amazing. To her credit, Mimi had spent twenty-six dollars—which, she was quick to point out, included stocking the previously underused kitchen with all the spices we would ever need.

And that's how the Sunday dinner tradition got started, when we finally understood how important it was to take a little time out of our week to spend with each other. Somehow, starting at about three o'clock, we trickle into the loft—I mean, The Loft—in drips and drabs, laden with either a few dollars or a bag of groceries. And by five, we're all there, in various combinations throughout the room. I remember some math class I had to take as an undergrad, some silly thing that had nothing to do with philosophy, that had very little to do with anything. The one useful thing we learned about was permutations, all the possible combinations that can be made out of a certain number of things or objects or even people. I think of it every Sunday—shifting permutations. It might be Mimi and Joanne trying to teach Roger to tango as Mark and Maureen make potato pancakes and vegetable soup in the kitchen, bickering loud enough for me to stand nearby, laughing, in case a mediator is needed, which it never really is. Or Roger and Maureen on the couch, playing cards, while Mimi sits at the table with me, asking questions about a book she's read—she wryly says she if ever knew how much she liked to read, maybe giving up the drugs would have been easier—while Mark films Joanne making curry. Or me and Mark stirring the stir-fry as the others play what sounds like a very dirty game of charades in the other room. Or even Roger, trying to keep his eyes on the quesadillas he's making, Mimi hovering nearby, because, as she says, "I like to eat my dinner, not scrape it as a burned mess into the trash, thank you very much", her hand in his back pocket the whole time, Maureen on Joanne's lap on the couch next to Mark, the two of them telling him an outrageous story involving Gingrich's sister, me at the table, setting places. The loft warm, for once, and smelling pretty good, because quesadillas are hard for even Roger to fuck up, me looking at my assembled family, thinking that it's so close to perfect, my throat hurts. Because if that one person weren't missing...

Mark looks up, the "ladies" laughing uproariously at their own jokes, and catches my eye. He smiles, sadly, and I know he's thinking the same thing, and suddenly he points to the end of the table, the plastic bag with the dessert Maureen brought from home. Cake. I quirk an eyebrow at Mark, who looks surprised that I don't get it. I look closer...white cake. Oh. Oh. Angel-food cake. And I look back at Mark and smile so hard my face hurts, and he smiles too and suddenly it's right, the six of us here, Mimi alternately admonishing Roger and kissing his neck, Maureen tickling Joanne, who squirms underneath her, Mark and I laughing as we remember, all of us going about the business of living with vigor and, finally, with some joy. Living, not regretting, but not forgetting our guardian Angel, either. It's the best way I can see to do it—endless permutations of my family, surviving.

Fin.