Drama Sad Romance

The house hadn’t been warm in all the years I’d been there. We went once a month, every month, since I was young enough to remember, and it was always the same.

It wasn’t that the heat was broken — Mom had sent electricians, a heating-and-cooling-expert to the house, taught her how to use the thermostat, and tried anything else under the sun. One month, Mom was so inspired as to load up the back of the minivan with grocery store firewood and hand deliver it once a week. She gave up when she realized Grandma was just carrying it and stacking it in the boiler room. The plastic hadn’t even been unwrapped. The flickering yellow cellophane mocked my mother with bright eyes. After that, Mom gave up. 

You’d think that after a childhood in Grandma’s icebox house, Mom would have gotten used to it, but she wasn’t. When we went to visit Grandma, we layered up. We sat in her wallpapered parlor drinking chocolate milk, bundled in crinkly winter jackets, furry hoods around our shoulders. 

When I was a teenager, I was convinced that the real reason Grandma was doing it was to make my Mom mad. During those years, of course, I hated my mom and thought that was the only thing mothers and daughters knew how to do — be angry with each other. As I got older, I realized that it was just the way it was. 

It was hard to think that we’d miss it, but as time went on, my sister and I began to look forward to the afternoons we dreaded as kids. Every time we saw Grandma, we made a holiday out of it. We brought flowers and cookies and cared deeply. We grew more attentive as Grandma drifted away. She wouldn’t tell us what she had, and Mom wouldn’t talk about it, but we saw the recognition begin to fade from her blue eyes. We wanted to know her more than anyone, and she knew us less and less every time she saw us.

“Are you looking for someone?” She said, this time, opening the door. Her fingernails were pink, but only on one hand. The others were yellow and unpainted, rough at the surface. It was the week before Christmas and I saw her little green tree in the living room behind her, twinkling.

“We’re looking for you,” my sister said. She shifted the stack of wrapped boxes from one arm to the other. 

“Oh,” my grandmother said. She looked off somewhere behind us, between our two heads, not thinking. “Oh, I’m not sure who that is.”

“Grandma, we’re here for you.” I said, trying to get her attention. Her face screwed up like she was going to cry.

“I’m not old— I’m not old enough to be a grandmother!” Her eyes widened. She looked at my face and I felt like I could read her mind. She looked and looked at me and then smiled.

“Yes,” she said, “Dorothy. Yes, dear, of course. Come in.” 

I looked at my sister and she looked at me. Neither of us, of course, were named Dorothy, but we obeyed, stepping onto the welcome mat and knocking the snow off of our shoes. 

“I know you’re not Dorothy—” my grandmother began to mumble, turning back into the house. “I just miss her sometimes. Sometimes I think she’s—” She turned back around to look at us, taking our shoes off. “Sometimes I hope she’d come back. To have another Christmas with me.”

My sister walked over to the Christmas tree, setting the gifts on the tarp underneath it, a bed of needles waiting for them. They were mismatched, our different colors of wrapping paper from our respective homes weren’t exactly color coordinated. Mar’s house had bought six rolls of dinosaur-themed wrapping paper because her boys were in the dinosaur phase of childhood. This particular paper had roaring t-rexes with party hats, in all colors and sizes. 

My box was wrapped in the inside of a paper grocery bag because I didn’t have kids or a family or any need. I told people that reusing paper was better for the environment.

“What are you nice girls doing seeing me when it’s so cold outside?” She said, wrapping her little shoulders up tighter in her shawl. It wasn’t much, because the inside of the house was just as cold, but at least it wasn’t snowing. I saw my breath leave my mouth when I spoke.

“Dropping off your gifts, Grandma.”

She waved her hand at me. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

I looked at my sister. We weren’t supposed to be surprised when things like this happened, but I still wasn’t used to it. I was always uneasy.

“What would you rather we call you?” Mar asked.

“Oh, call me Linnie. That’s what everyone used to call me.” She had walked absentmindedly into the kitchen, but wasn’t speaking any louder. We went to her. 

“Until a certain age, your name is your name. Everyone calls you it.” She was sitting at the kitchen table. “And then you reach that certain age, and all of a sudden, your name is Mom. And your whole life is those children who never call you by your name. You love them, of course,” she looked up at us, those blue eyes milky, “of course. I loved being a mother. But sometimes you forget your own name. Now it’s Mom and Grandma. Since Richard died, I haven’t heard my own name aloud. Not aloud.”

“Linnie,” I said, “Linnie it is, then.”

“I don’t think I even knew your real name, Grandma,” Mar said, then winced.

I pulled out a chair and sat next to our grandmother. The table was dusty, with an empty fruit bowl in the center and an open photo book. My grandmother looked absently into the wall across her. 

“What’s this— Linnie?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said, blinking. She reached out and pulled the book closer to us. “This old thing? Your mother brought it to me. It’s one of my old albums. I kept so many I didn’t even realize it missing.”

She flipped through a few pages, stopping here and there to point out pictures of herself when she was young, young and beautiful she said.

“Back when my boobs still stood up on their own,” she laughed, “and I could bend my fingers all the way. Those were the days.” She looked up and made eye contact with me, like she was going to tell me the most important thing. 

I felt like her eyes were looking right through me and then the opposite way, through the back of my skull and right around to her own eyes; like she was looking at me but really, really, it was herself.

“Don’t grow old, dear,” she said at last, finally. 

I smiled. I’d hoped it was something more helpful. I didn’t feel myself growing old, but I guess it was happening because there was nothing but commentary all about it.

“I’ll do my best,” I said, reassuring. She was satisfied and stood up all of a sudden, pushing her chair out from behind her knees, and began to busy herself at the counter. She asked whether we wanted something to eat, drink, smoke — we said, thank you, tea, oranges are fine, cookies are good, thank you, thank you.

My sister pulled the album to herself and began to flip through the plastic pages, pausing every so often to point something out to me. The pictures were all grainy, black and white, and my grandmother had been very beautiful when she was young. I still thought she was beautiful but she would never let me say it. She looked, I thought, a lot like me. I wanted to think I was beautiful.

“Who’s this—” my sister began, “Linnie?”

My grandmother didn’t hear her and continued slicing open the little orange clementines she had gathered on the marble. Her paring knife clicked as she cut. When the arthritis began to get the best of her, she stopped peeling oranges and started slicing them.

Mar pushed the book across the table to me and pointed to the picture. It wasn’t big, but it was clearly my grandmother. She was wearing a dress and her hair was long, and she was being dipped by a boy. I could see all of her teeth, and she was laughing so hard that her eyes had turned to slivers on her face. Her head was thrown back and her foot was in the air, arms spread-eagle on either side, in complete trust. His arm was around the small of her back, his other hand behind her neck. He looked like he would never drop her. She looked like she believed that with her whole heart.

I heard her clogs on the kitchen tile as she walked back to us, felt the plates and silverware touch the table. She placed a mug in front of her own seat, one in front of Mar, and turned back for mine. I muttered thank you, but couldn’t look away from that picture.

“Who is this boy?” I asked, loudly so she could hear and couldn’t pretend not to.

“Who?” She came up behind me, reaching over my shoulder to put my tea on the table in front of me. She drew her hand back and then put it on my back, to steady herself as she bent forward to look where I was pointing. 

“Here,” I said, bringing the photo closer to her.

“Oh,” was all she said. Her hand came away from my back and she wobbled over to her seat. She took the album from my hands and closed it, but her finger was stuck in the page, marking it.

“Who’s that?” Mar asked, blowing on her tea. “You guys look so happy. I’ve never seen someone look so happy.”

I looked at my grandmother and tried to understand her. 

I understood her better than I did Mom. I thought maybe that kind of understanding falls in every other generation. Maybe my future children would understand my mother in a way I never did. But that would only happen if I had a daughter. Mar’s sons only liked to climb on Mom’s shoulders and make mustaches out of her long brown hair. I hoped that someday a child would be born in the world that could read my mother’s mind because my sister couldn’t, and neither could I. I think that was one of my mother’s greatest disappointments in life. She had always wanted to be understood. 

Maybe my grandmother felt the same way. 

I stared at the lines on her face. I tried to put myself into her cold little body and understand what was happening, what had happened, what a life she had lived. But I began to feel like an astronaut so I stopped trying.

“Were you in love?” I said, finally, snapping everyone out of our tired silence. 

My grandmother blinked. She began to pick at the corner of an orange slice with the tip of her fingernail.

“What do you mean?” she said.

“You and the boy. This boy. Were you in love?” I asked.

She closed her eyes like she was going to go quiet again.

“Come on, tell us.” Mar said, pushing her hand with her knuckle. “We’re dying of suspense here. You never tell us stories anymore.”

“Oh,” my grandmother said, and then smiled a little. “I didn’t even know I had that picture. It was such a long time ago. I haven’t seen it in ages.”

She opened the album back up and set her chin in her palm, looking down at it. Mar stared at me from across the table and grinned like a little kid. Grandma had this effect on us. Like this house. Made us feel like little kids.

“What was his name?” I asked.

“Tommy,” she said. She closed her eyes again. “His name was Tommy. I don’t think— I don’t think I even remember his last name. We were teenagers. Maybe we were 17? Oh, it’s been years. I was a little older than him, but he was taller so it was alright. I think he would have been 16.” She nodded as if she was telling the story all to herself, but the details were still important.

“We were in love,” she said. “Well, we were kids but we were in love. You know how kids love each other. They can’t wait for the heartbreak. I loved him so bad that it hurt. I liked that it hurt. I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.”

She slid her finger into the plastic sleeve and pulled out the picture.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You know, how it goes. We held hands and everything like that. He used to play—” she laughed and covered her mouth, looking down at the picture, not glancing up at us. “He used to play the accordion. His father taught him—”

She brushed her finger over the picture, touching his face. “He said his father taught him. I can’t believe I’m remembering all of this. He was Russian. Beautiful, beautiful face. He played this one song — and I can’t even remember the name but it was something about eyes. Beautiful eyes. I think they were dark. Dark eyes. Something about dark eyes. It was Russian, and I couldn’t speak it yet but I was learning, and he would sing to me and make me try to understand the words.”

“I didn’t know you spoke Russian,” Mar said, biting into a cookie. The crumbs rained onto her plate like snow.

“I don’t,” our grandmother said. “After he left I never learned. I couldn’t without him. Sometimes you tie something like that to someone and then when they’re gone you can’t even look at it again.”

“So you just never tried?” I bit into an orange. She was shaking her head and turning over the tea biscuit in one hand, still holding the picture in the other.

“I went to Moscow once. To look for him. I went on the train and everything. It was years after he had gone and I wanted to see him again. I don’t remember what I was thinking. I thought that I would arrive in Moscow and there he would be, standing at the station, waiting for me all those years,” she laughed and put the picture down, but not back into the sleeve. “All I remember was that it was so cold, so cold and I wondered how he could live in such a cold place. I wanted to ask him, but I never found him.

“I think I thought that the whole city belonged to him. I was young, you understand. I didn’t know anything about the world except that I loved a boy named Tommy and he went to Russia and I wanted to follow him.”

I wanted to ask more questions but I didn’t. I looked at Mar. There were tears in her eyes. She was looking at the cookie crumbs in her plate like they had done something to her. 

“I would have followed him anywhere. To the end of the world,” my grandmother said, quietly.

I stared at my grandmother, not understanding her but wanting to, desperately. I wanted to know what was going on in her brain. I felt all of her feelings as she spoke, though. I thought of my high school boyfriend. When you’re in high school you think that everyone you love is the love of your life. 

Mar married her high school sweetheart. That didn’t help. I clung to destiny, even when the guys I dated were Kurt Kobain-wannabees and played me their clumsy renditions of "Wonderwall," unwashed hair falling over their foreheads. I kissed them in their father’s pickup trucks and convinced myself that I would follow them to the end of the world.

As my grandmother spoke, jealousy bubbled up inside my chest. I had never felt a love like that. I had never gotten on a train for someone, blindly feeling a dark, strange city in hopes of reaching their face. But I wanted it more than anything.

“What happened?” Mar finally asked. 

“He had to go home. Back to school. I only knew him for the summer, and he just never came back. I waited every summer at home, for him to knock on my door with flowers and a smile but it never happened. I don’t know what happened to him,” she said. She smiled and slid the photograph back into the sleeve.

“Sometimes that’s how it goes. I hated it. I loved him very much but I wanted him to die. Sometimes I imagined he had gone off to war and gotten killed in the trenches,” there was no bitterness on her face as she said this. She sipped her tea with peace on her face.

“What? Why?” Mar looked shocked. I understood.

“I wanted there to be some real reason for his disappearance. I wanted to know that he was dead and buried. Instead, I got to spend the rest of my life wondering where he went.

“After a while, I moved to America, met Richard, got married. I forgot all about him. I haven’t though about him in years. If you’d told me— when I was 18 or 19 and making myself sick over him, that I was married to another man, she would have called me a heretic. He was our God. It’s funny to think about that now, but he really was.” 

She looked at me. I knew that through my eyes she was looking back at her own, but somehow I felt like I knew her intimately, all of a sudden. 

“I understand you,” I said, and the words frightened me as they came out of my mouth.

April 02, 2024 00:23

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