On Christmas I found Grandma Lucy lying on linoleum. She’d fallen. The refrigerator hummed behind her naked body like a death rattle. There were bloody tissues balled in her fists, but she was alive and speaking. “I just wanted a little yogurt,” she said. “I got a nosebleed.”
Her arms fluttered in the air, clutching for handholds, human fingers, anything. It was the first time I’d seen her whole body—her baggy ghost-skin and all the blue veins underneath.
I’d ridden a train through the brittle Connecticut winter with a wedge of gingerbread and a ham sandwich full of fatty cuts, her favorite kind. I had a bag of presents. From the floor she asked: “Are those for me?”
She was shivering. I’d never seen her this way, so fluent at this grasping. Her face twitched as though she were trying to hold her features steady while something happened underneath. She took my hand. Her fingers were greasy with lotion. “I need Matilda,” she said. Her voice was calm and sure, as if this request was entirely reasonable. I’d never heard of anyone named Matilda.
I gripped her wrist and slid one hand under the hunch of her back. Her skin was loose between the bony marbles of her spine. “Don’t pull,” she said. “It hurts.”
I called my brother. Tom said, “You need to ask her: ‘Lucy, did you hit your head?’” I cupped my palm over the phone and waited for her reply. He waited for me.
“It was only yogurt,” she said. “Just a little bit I wanted.”
I knelt down next to her. My boots squeaked on the linoleum. “But did you hit your head? Can you tell me that?”
“If I had,” she said. “I’m not sure I would remember.”
I reported back to Tom. He said I should keep her awake for at least two hours. This was the rule he remembered about concussions, in case she had one. He was with our mother, Dora, on the other side of the country, probably sipping seltzer at a Pacific restaurant where everyone was thinking cheerfully unconcussed thoughts about their sushi. It was a first-generation place, he told me, mercifully open on holidays. It was the first day my mother had taken off work in months.
“Tom?” I asked. “Do you know anyone named Matilda?”
“One sec,” he said. “I’m putting Mom on the phone.”
Her voice was loud and sudden: “You need to do what Stella says! You need to let her take care of you!”
“Are you trying to talk to Grandma?” I asked. “Should I give her the phone?”
“Oh,” she said. “Of course.”
Grandma Lucy gripped the cell phone with her quaking fingers. My mother spoke so loudly that her voice sounded like it was coming from the floor under Grandma Lucy’s ear. She rolled onto her side and handed me the phone. Tom said, “Two hours, yeah?” I heard noise in the background, the rustling of glass and gossip. I hung up.
Grandma Lucy didn’t want any gingerbread or tea. She didn’t want presents. She just wanted to go to sleep. It wasn’t dark yet, not even close. The day had been ruined, she insisted. She wanted to wake up and have Christmas tomorrow.
I checked my watch. I took a breath. Two hours: I would do this. We found a holiday special on television. Animated clay reindeer scampered across the glittering snow. I had to keep shaking Grandma Lucy to make sure she was awake. “Hey,” I said. “You’re missing the part with the reindeer. With the snow.”
“This show is terrible,” she said finally. The opinion itself, saying it out loud, seemed to give her a second wind, and she suggested we open presents after all. Her thick curtains made the sunlight feel oozy, as if it were coming through gauze bandages. She lived on the third floor of a block of condos with stucco walls the color of blanched almonds. Most of her neighbors were bankers who commuted into the city.
My grandmother loved Connecticut. It was where she’d fallen in love with my grandfather and where they’d gotten married. He came from old New England stock, but he’d been the one to insist they move west, to get away from his family. Then he took off to roam the world and never came back. He left her with a little girl to raise all by herself. His family promised her as much money as she needed for the rest of her life.
Grandma Lucy had fallen in love with that whole family—their old blood, their traditions—and she’d wanted to give my mother a sense of where she came from, so they spent summers on Cape Cod in a family property that my mother recalled with disdain. “It was nothing but a dirty bribe,” she told me. “Giving us that beach house for a couple lousy months. Money was like a bastard child out there—everyone knew about it, but you never heard it mentioned.” My mother didn’t have any memories of her father, but her anger toward him seemed vast enough to cover years of open wounds. It extended to his people with a ferocity that made up for my grandmother’s forgiveness.
Lucy had always understood, without needing to be told, that she wasn’t welcome at the year-round family haunts. That perhaps it was better if she stayed out west. But after she’d finished raising her daughter in Los Angeles, she’d come back to this sacred desolation, the eastern cold and money of Greenwich. She could buy anything she wanted, but she didn’t want much these days, and her sparse rooms seemed mournful in their neatness.
“She never blamed him for leaving her,” my mother said. “I never got that.”
Lucy was like a well-behaved child with her Christmas gifts, orderly and attentive. I’d gotten her a variety pack of bubble bath and a pair of pot holders that said in stitched letters: I’M HOLDING NEW YORK’S FINEST CASSEROLE. I’d always known Grandma Lucy as a maker of casseroles full of cream soups and canned corn, fridge biscuits torn into chunks. They were ocean-salty and smooth as silk. She cooked our dinners whenever she came out west to help take care of us, whenever my mother’s work got especially intense, but my mother usually hated what she made. “These stews have been processed up the wazoo,” she said. “It will take me years to shit them out.” She actually said this once at dinner. Grandma Lucy frowned and started clearing dishes from the table.
My mother had always criticized her mother’s cooking—how hard she tried and how she still wasn’t much good. She gladly took recipes from the family who had disowned her. Like she didn’t have a speck of pride, my mom said. And they always tasted terrible. There was a blueberry pie whose flakes of crust peeled away like dead skin. Finally, she just gave up and threw those recipes out, my mom said, her voice proud. She said: “I’ve had a lot of pies in my life. Never had a pie like this.”
So these NEW YORK’S FINEST CASSEROLE pot holders were a kind of wink, delayed by years, and a bit of a victory stamp. We weren’t on my mother’s side of the country anymore, and Grandma Lucy could make her casseroles in peace. She squinted at their diamond-quilted squares. “I can’t make New York’s finest anything,” she said. “I live in Connecticut.” She laid the pot holders neatly on her coffee table. “Six kinds of bubble bath,” she said. “How about that?”
When she pulled her wool skirt over the sticks of her legs, her panty hose were thin enough to show the damage of her age—plum-colored bruises across her shins and thighs. “It’s like a cage in here,” she said, meaning her body. “Every part of me aches, or else it itches.” She insisted that the itching was a deeper discomfort than I could know. “It’s not on the skin,” she told me. “It’s happening underneath.”
Then she paused as if trying to recall something. “I got you a present, too,” she said finally. “But I can’t remember what it was.”
I told her we wouldn’t worry about that for now. What if I ran a bath instead? Maybe it would feel good against her skin?
“We’ll use the bubbles!” she said. She was so lonely, so ready to please me. How was I only seeing it now? Her eagerness came loose like unspooled thread. You couldn’t yearn like this unless you’d been lonely for years, practicing. Now her body was weak enough to yearn along with her.
I ran a bath with honey vanilla, her choice, and sat on the toilet seat while she folded herself—thin legs, white belly, arms like baggy insect wings and glimmering with soap—under the steaming surface of the water. I brought a book and kept my eyes tightly locked on it, line to line, so she wouldn’t feel me staring. I glanced up once. She curled her finger to beckon me closer. I leaned in.
“She filled a bath,” she told me. “To bring them back to life.”
“What?” I said. “Who did?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. Very slowly, she inched herself farther under the water. I could see the red flush of heat marking her skin where she’d gone under. Who had filled a bath? Who’d died? It could be from a movie. I knew she watched a lot of them. What else could you do, alone all day, with every body part giving up separate ghosts—eyes and legs, lobes of the mind?
“Who did what?” I asked again. “What came back to life?”
“She was gentler than your mother, no matter what she did. She gave me a bruise here once, but she was always gentle underneath.” Lucy ran two fingers across her cheek, leaving a film.
I said, “I don’t know who you mean.”
“No,” she said. “We never told you.” She hugged herself. She could have been speaking from the middle of a dream.
“Never told me about what?”
“About Matilda,” she said. “Your mother’s sister.”
“You have a—” I stopped myself. “Where is she?”
She spoke so softly I could barely hear: “I don’t know.”
In her croaking voice, Grandma Lucy told me about her younger daughter in reverent bursts, as if Matilda were a dream that would be lost if she weren’t told fast enough. It had taken all these years just to say her name out loud.
Grandma Lucy said she’d taken Matilda—only Matilda, not my mother—to the tide pools every summer. This was in Chatham, near the big salty mouth of the Atlantic. “I showed her sea urchins,” she said. “Little bundles of purple pencils.”
She’d explained—to her and now to me—about starfish. How they ate with their stomachs outside their bodies. Their color was like orange juice concentrate, she said, so unbelievably bright. Maybe she had shades of freezer foods in mind for every animal. I remembered all the times my mother had said, She’s just a housewife, through and through.
“Matilda loved those pools,” Lucy said. “She really did.”
She’d loved feeling the urchins’ points and watching the crabs for hours, as they fought for homes in rock caves, but she’d flinched from the starfish when they sucked on her arm. “She said it felt like someone taking a breath right next to her skin,” Grandma Lucy said. “I told her it had a mouth on its belly.”
“It thought Matilda was food?”
“No.” Grandma Lucy laughed. “It thought she was home.”
She described the shoreline—meadows that stretched all the way to the water, full of a particular prickly weed. Matilda called it Grandma Grass, because the wind made it sound like an old woman sighing. “Grandma Grass.” Lucy paused. “I guess that’s me now.”
It was only when she started shivering again that I thought of how the water must have cooled around her skin. She couldn’t lift herself from the tub. I had to dunk my arms to hoist her up. Her wet body dripped all over my jeans and my cashmere sweater. She sat on the toilet seat, shaking.
That’s when she got to the part about the dead things. One time my mother had filled a bathtub with bits and pieces of the ocean: a collage of ash-gray barnacles lined up like toy soldiers, a small flock of ghost crabs that hoisted themselves across the tub with weary ticktock steps, old men in their shells. They tapped the porcelain with their pincers.
“Your mother left them for days,” Grandma Lucy said. “She was like that. Always curious.”
“And Matilda tried to save them?”
Grandma Lucy held the towel around her narrow shoulders while her white hair dripped bathwater. She told me about this younger daughter—new to me, gone to everyone—the one who found a tiny ocean dying and thought she could run enough bathwater to bring it back to life. What happened? The barnacles washed away like scabs. The crabs weren’t the kind of crabs that needed water all around them. They drowned.
* * *
On the train home, I called my mother. I told her Grandma Lucy needed help. No problem, she said. We’d hire a nurse for visits.
“She doesn’t need help sometimes,” I said. “She needs it all the time.”
My mother was an immigration lawyer and a fearsome pixie beauty. She negotiated her daily schedule as a creature separate from herself, uncompromising, a force to be obeyed: client meetings, spinning classes, therapy sessions. “I call Mother all the time,” she said, hurt.
I knew if she’d been in the room, she would have pulled out her daily calendar to show me where she’d penciled these calls: little X’s tucked between names and telephone numbers, between appointments crossed through once, twice, three times, until the final hour perched uneasily in a hasty box of pen strokes. My eyes got lost when I looked at that book. It was a maze. I knew my mother was in there somewhere.
None of it made sense, I said, why Grandma Lucy was naked and fetching yogurt, and what about this bleeding? All this shivering? Maybe it was loose firing, her explanations—I had a nosebleed—just words that came into her head and seemed right.
Had she been lucid or not? my mother asked.
I didn’t know, I confessed. She veered.
I could hear background fuzz. This meant I was on speakerphone. It was still Christmas, even in the West, but I could tell my mother had returned to her office. I knew she liked to pace the length of her long windows, their panels stuck with skyscrapers like splinters.
“She’s probably not getting enough exercise,” she said. “She barely leaves the house.”
I thought of Grandma Lucy sprawled on the floor, hands flapping like birds. A mustache of blood had pooled in worm trails from her nostrils.
“I don’t think exercise is the issue, so much,” I said. “She’s just…”
“She needs help.” I paused. “Like I said.”
I knew grown children did this all the time—put their lives on hold to care for the failing bodies of their parents, to help them eat and smile and shit without making a mess. My mom wanted to look into live-in care options. It was no problem, she said. She had the money. “But Mother isn’t going to like it,” she said. “Not one bit.”
Strangers being nice never make anything better, Lucy had told me. They just make me feel alone. She’d rather wither away completely than make this final submission to a stranger’s care.
I suggested another plan. I could come up four nights a week. I’d cook and keep her company.
My mom said, “You’ll make me look like a terrible daughter.”
“There’s always somebody falling, isn’t there? And you catch them.”
“She fell,” I said. “I didn’t make her fall.”
She stayed silent. So did I.
I said, “She told me about Matilda.”
Finally: “I wanted to be the one to tell you.”
“You had years.”
“I always meant to,” she said. “I just didn’t.”
“I knew you’d think I was terrible.”
“For what?” I said. “I don’t even know what happened.”
“You want to know what happened?” she said. “Matilda left us. She left first. She came back, but she never really came back. She never tried.”
“She ran away?”
“It was complicated.”
“It’s been so many years…I mean, Christ, my whole life. You never wanted me to know?”
“We agreed we wouldn’t talk about it,” she said. “It was easier for Lucy.”
“It was. It’s different now.”
“What did she say?” my mom asked. “About Matilda? How did she sound?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was she angry?”
“Not angry, so much. Just sad.”
“How did she bring it up?”
“I don’t know, Mom. She was lying in the tub and rambling. She fell and maybe hit her head, and she was hurting and being honest. She missed her daughter.” I paused again. “That’s how she brought it up.”
My mother was quiet.
“I wish you could explain it,” I said. “How it got—”
“It happens, okay? When something happens like this in a family,” she said, “it doesn’t do any good to try to figure it out.”
Her voice sounded like a bronze bell, hard-struck and twanging across the miles, so sharp it was difficult to believe it wouldn’t leave a humming aftertone. Happens. Like earthquakes or cancer. Like the steady clock-ticking of an old woman falling apart. My mother wouldn’t understand what was happening to her mother’s body until she saw it for herself.
“You don’t know anything about her?” I said. “Nothing at all?”
“We know she lives in the desert,” she said. “God knows where in Nevada. Or maybe she doesn’t anymore. It’s been years since we’ve heard.”
A moment earlier, there had been some part of my mother open—some part I’d never heard. Now she was blistered and brittle in a way I recognized, ready to take offense. It was the way she talked about her father when she spoke about him at all.
My mother claimed to have disavowed his clan— nothing but a big nest of WASPs, she said—but her voice betrayed stray notes of pride. They’d been the movers and shakers behind our nation’s early history. I imagined skeletal, bespectacled men who levied sugar taxes and traded fur pelts, paid the boys who cleaned up tea from the harbor. As a child I’d loved thinking about the Boston Tea Party. What if someone had founded an entire city on soil made from hard-packed tea, Darjeeling or English breakfast? Would the heat of summer make the air smell like it was steeping?
“It’s history,” I told my mom. “And our family was part of it.”
“It stopped being your family when he left,” she snapped. “It stopped being your family before you were even born.”
So there I was, a child of the West, where history was marked in decades, where the history of a woman, her very name, could dissolve like heat off the freeway, an ugly shimmering, the inscrutable residue of what was already gone.
I moved to Manhattan when I was twenty-two years old. I’d had big plans for New York in the beginning. Everyone does, I guess. The first time I ever saw Manhattan, I was visiting Tom at Columbia. He’d left home an angry teenager with blue-streaked hair and a band called the Hangovers. But in his new life, in this new city, he had become very proper: an economics major with a girlfriend named Susannah Fern Howe. Her parents lived in Newton. “As in Fig?” I’d asked, but he didn’t seem amused. They had another house off the Cape. “Like where Mom went when she was little?”
“Off the Cape,” Tom corrected. “Martha’s Vineyard. An island. It’s different.”
He’d grown different, too. In high school he’d been hard as nails and full of mockery, teasing me about the ways I hardly knew the world, making vague reference to his friends and the confusion of their sex-having. Now he’d grown distant, polite in my company, as though both of us were already adults. I was ten, and he was already telling me New York was a “peerless city,” whatever that meant, the opposite of Los Angeles. All I knew was I wanted to go shopping in the Village.
“Shopping, yeah,” he said, winking. “We’ve got a little bit of that.”
Already: we. He and the city owned things, held them.
I’d been picturing vintage stores full of gauzy dresses and leather sandals. He took me to Fifth Avenue, where the money in my pink plastic purse wasn’t going to buy me anything. “What about the bohemian stuff?” I asked. “Bohemian” was a word I’d learned especially for my trip. We ended up on a street full of discount denim outlets, the kind with clattering metal shutters. Yellow jeans were going for ninety-nine cents a pop. “Here’s the Village,” he said. “Happy now?”
I moved there ten years later, to prove I could be. My mother had been asking me for years— What were my plans? My goals? —but I couldn’t think of any answer that was my own, that wouldn’t have been, beneath it all, a reply to her questions.
The problem wasn’t realizing that New York was different from the place I’d dreamed it would be, but rather, knowing that it was that place, somewhere I hadn’t yet discovered. I knew there were vintage stores like the ones I’d imagined, where elegant women ran their long fingers over lace skirts and tucked their feet into weathered ballet slippers to strut along hard sidewalks full of flakes that glittered in the sunlight. It was out there, that block. I kept trying to find it.
Living in New York seemed like a career in itself: just being there, opening my gills to the grit and heartbeat of the city. The coffee shops were thick with everyone I’d known in college, where I’d understood myself most sharply, my edges contoured by the constant presence of other people: our long chats in empty dining halls, our dinner parties of bland shrimp and burnt rice. We’d spoken without reservation, in arguments and monologues, and there was always someone listening. Drunk, maybe, but listening. What were we going to do next? We spread ourselves like a glaze across hundreds of blocks, across brownstones.
I slept in a room that had been a closet. You could still see the painted hooks where the wardrobe bar had been attached. I came home late, buzzed, and curled into my twin bed with a book of Lorca’s poems about the city: They are the ones. / The ones who drink silver whiskey near the volcanoes / and swallow pieces of heart by the bear’s frozen mountains. I spent my nights wondering: Who were the ones? Where were they drinking?
“You’re like your father,” my mom told me. “You make a career out of all the little things.” She didn’t mean this as a compliment.
My father, no longer her husband, had worked for many years as a personal assistant for an artist named Enrico. Enrico was the unofficial leader of a group of artists known as the Border School. “Rothko at the Dump,” he was called, because he took big heaps of trash and painted them a single color or a wash of two. His pieces were called Dump 1, Dump 2, Dump 3. It was a startling effect—the color so regular and vast, the rustling texture of the rubbish beneath. They made me feel a bit seasick, gave me that heave-ho of wanting to move closer and farther away at once. Afterward I always wondered: What was its purpose, that vertigo? It changed a moment of your life and went away again.
As it turned out, my mother knew me better than I knew myself, because I became a personal assistant as well. I got a job working for a journalist on the Upper West Side whom I called Ms. Z. She had a real name with more letters, but she never quite seemed like a real person, not quite, so I used the Z by itself. Much of New York seemed composed of these types: ideas about people that had become actual people, walking around with scripted lives curled in their guts, ticker tapes of ridiculous words waiting to get spoken.
Every morning I went to Ms. Z’s apartment on Seventy-first, just off the park, and worked in a loft above her living room. Her furniture was ugly and expensive: heavy fabrics with thick tassels and brocade cushions, couches for looking at rather than sitting on. But she did have floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the dark green Ramble. You could see people having small adventures, dropping Popsicles and fighting with lovers.
Ms. Z wrote books about things like women having sex and women getting old and old women having sex. She worked a hefty lecture circuit and I wrote her speeches. I interviewed inspirational single women and inspirational married women and inspirational anorexic women and inspirational suicidal women—or rather, women who had considered suicide and turned away. I also booked her Jitney tickets and took out cash from ATMs so she could pay her several cleaning women, none of whom were legal.
One day she had a pre-interview over the phone for a television appearance. It was a talk show about aging. Aging! The show came with punctuation.
I listened to her voice piping aphorisms like song lyrics into the phone downstairs: “It’s not about staying young. It’s about loving old.”
She called me down afterward. “Book my Botox,” she said. “I’m not going on TV without it.”
I heard her say this, and then, almost immediately, I heard the echo of how I’d repeat it to other people. And I did repeat it, on that night and other ones. I put on high heels and walked a mile through rainy streets to a cocktail party underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. I arrived and opened my mouth to drink and speak. “Guess what my boss said?”
I told friends, acquaintances, strangers, anyone who would listen. It didn’t matter if you knew me or not. The anecdote worked either way. This was New York. Telling stories wasn’t about talking to anyone in particular, it was just about talking. Something had happened to you that might capture another person’s attention. It was lonely, this kind of speaking. The truth of being young felt like an ugly secret everyone had agreed to keep.
Every night I said things like: Today my boss and I got drunk at lunch. Today my boss was on Oprah! Today I spent a thousand dollars on gift baskets. Today I used the word “autumnal” twice, and both times I was speaking to tulip salesmen.
The places where I said these things mattered as much as saying them. The facts and feelings of my life were only as important as the places where they caught in my throat. The Pegu Club, the SKINnY, Milk and Honey, Marlow & Sons and the Slaughtered Lamb and Kettle of Fish and the Dove and Freemans and the arepas place off First and a coffee shop called Think, and a restaurant called Snack, and a restaurant called Home.
We all stayed out late because we knew we were supposed to, spinning the furious and elegant yarns of cowards. We stretched our lives like taffy on racks. We found the grave and humorous correlations between our lives and the lives of celebrities, the course of unjust wars, the third world and its charlatan leaders, the globe and its various Achilles heels—the oceans, the atmosphere. We made fun and then we stopped making fun, quite abruptly, to show we knew how to take things seriously. We ate well. We talked about the food; we talked about the food we weren’t eating—in other restaurants, other boroughs. We talked about sadness, how we’d never really known it. We talked about genocides that people had forgotten because they only talked about the holocaust. We talked about ourselves, mainly, and who we were fucking.
I talked about Louis, a married professor who hosted me, his phrase, from time to time. Stupidly, I had fallen in love with him. He’d written a book about the early female mystics, the ones who starved and hurt themselves, called: How Did Julian Find His [Sic] God? He asked me questions about my two years of anorexia. Three if you counted another year I didn’t get my period. “It was my sick God,” I told him. I was like that—up for it, sporting.
“You’re young,” he said, putting his hand on my knee. “But you should take yourself more seriously.”
I told my friends what he’d said, and we laughed. They’d always told me I should try the opposite.
There were things I didn’t tell anyone. Today I got on my hands and knees in Ms. Z’s bathroom and scrubbed away urine stains left by her dying dog. Today I watched Ms. Z make her housekeeper cry. Unsaid, rephrased: Today I got paid to watch a grown woman cry.
I compressed my days neatly into appetizer courses. I worked as a personal assistant for a woman with a reputation for treating people like shit, and she treated me like shit. I couldn’t spin witty versions of the rest. In the darkness I began caring for my collapsing grandmother. She wasn’t being inspirational or having sex or treating anyone like shit. She was just getting old.
I went to Grand Central after work, on alternating days, and took the train to Greenwich. The cars were crowded with suited commuters riding to the suburbs, heading into their twelve-hour furloughs, loosening their ties. Beside them, I lurched into the hardest hours of my day: helping Grandma Lucy walk around the block, fixing Coronas with cuts of lime, her single indulgence, spreading creams and potions across the crinkled paper of her rosacea-blooming cheeks.
Outside the train windows, Connecticut unfurled into an endless spread of lumberyards and fenced-off freight ghettos, graveyards for retired buses and port-o-potties, all the wreckage hushed under sudden dusk. Sometimes I rode in the bar car, where men tucked away plastic cups of watery gin to brace themselves for the trials of their wives and children. You’d rather be alone? I thought. You sure? I imagined Grandma Lucy watching the door for my entry, perched like a bird in her silent apartment full of colors: yellow walls, blue carpet, purple couch, these cloying shades her only company.
All these hues had come with age—a concession, perhaps, to the quiet desire for cheer in solitary circumstances. Her old living room in Los Angeles had had white walls and a white couch, invisibly matted with the white fur of her white cat, Boo. He’d had a brother named Radley, a tabby who’d gone to live with new owners a few months after Grandma Lucy got him. I always wondered if he was sent away because of that couch. Boo died when I was sixteen. Grandma Lucy kept his ashes in a silver box behind her best china.
We spent our evenings watching movies about spies and bank robbers. We put on big boots and walked around her parking lot. She took pleasure in the way I dressed, so I chose my outfits carefully: wide skirts with big blooming scarves, blouses edged with sequins or delicate stitching. “You’re your own person, Stella,” she said. “I like that.” The truth was, I shopped at stores that other people liked first or that trusted bloggers recommended. But it felt worthwhile to bring a smile to her face.
Though Lucy worked hard to keep the scraps of her life in order, it was getting harder. She took a lot of pills but didn’t know their names, only what they did: This one is for my heartbeat when it gets too fast, she said. There’s another one for when it’s skipping. I arranged them in small cubbyholes marked with the days of the week. I learned her body through the steaming bathwater: blood bruises darkening her thighs, sagging breasts draped like plastic bags over the bulb of her stomach. She had a long nose that was smooth and sweeping, its profile assertive. She wore frosty pink liner around the edges of her thin lips, but she couldn’t apply it right. The color always faded farther in, as if she’d sucked it all inside. She’d loved makeup for as long as I’d known her.
“Your mother’s always been a looker,” she told me once. “But she never seemed to notice.”
Lucy had always believed that if she could make her daughter different from her, different enough, she’d turn out satisfied. Now she was eighty years old and still asking herself: Had she?
Grandma Lucy had a body that looked sturdy and practical. It was hard to believe she’d been the source of my mother’s traits: a fierce and petite frame, a set of features that seemed stone-carved. Every part of my mother was thin, down to her fingers. She looked like she was about to split along a thousand secret fissures.
I looked more like Lucy than I looked like my mother. I had a certain beauty, but it wasn’t delicate. You didn’t want to protect me; you wanted to see if I would break. I was taller than most men by the time I got my period, over six feet, and my build was solid and demanding. My only fragile parts were my eyes—light blue and often teary, generally leaking. My father called them “windy.” My limbs looked heavy and felt that way, too: the straight stalks of my legs, my veiny palms and blunt fingers like weapons. “You’ve got a strong presence,” my mother said. “You should be proud of it.”
My mother dismissed beauty in the way that only beautiful women can. One time she told me, “Looks matter, I guess, but you can’t do much about them.” Then added, “And they never get you what you really want.”
She’d been angry when I asked for a bridal magazine for my tenth birthday. I loved looking at those porcelain women, silk dresses cinched tight around their doll waists. They had limbs so thin it seemed as if you could fold them into a box like twisted puppets. I imagined their interior lives as neatly appointed rooms, their emotions like furniture draped with sleek fabric and cut in smooth lines—the calm of self-possession, the tranquillity of being fully desired. I’d seen a picture of my mother in her wedding dress, and it took my breath away— I came from her, I thought, I couldn’t have—but knew I could never give her my admiration, or even a piece of it, because it wasn’t the kind of admiration she wanted.
Grandma Lucy had always been reserved about her body, never used words like “pee” or “snot.” Now she couldn’t hide anything. She had attacks of diarrhea on the couch and on the carpet. She was eating prunes because her pain medication made her constipated. “Maybe the prunes aren’t such a good idea,” I said. She was too frail to get to the bathroom quickly. She walked by balancing one hand against the walls or tables. Her nerves cried wolf; the itching had not abated. She was convinced ginger could help.
“Ginger?” I said. “Why ginger?”
She pulled a folded sheet of yellow paper from her pantry, where it had been tucked behind tins of salt and flour. It showed a map of the human body, covered with Chinese characters and bright red arcs connecting limbs, like an airline poster showing flights between cities. It had been Matilda’s. Grandma Lucy explained as best she could: “She thought everything was all linked up. She thought you could make your stomach feel better if you massaged your toes the right way.” Matilda also had particular ideas about which colors should be the last ones you saw before falling asleep: pale blue and gold. “She painted her ceiling,” Grandma Lucy told me. “Made her bedroom stink like turpentine for days.”
It was Matilda who’d had this crazy notion about ginger, that you should hold it under your tongue until it burned. It would distract you from your other aches. “It’s worth a try,” Grandma Lucy said now. “I haven’t got much to lose.”
Every Tuesday a woman named Juana came to the condo. She’d been working for Grandma Lucy for years. She cleaned and fixed pots of soup that we stored in the fridge all week: turkey chili that looked like dog food, soups thick as paint, chicken noodle with strands of thready meat. Lucy had grown to like baby textures. She had gums that bled like inky pens. Already she’d lost most of her appetite and a lot of weight, too. I had the most luck getting her through a bowl of split pea or bisque, the smooth ones, cream of this or that. When she clutched her spoon, her knobby fingers showed ghostly margins where the larger flesh had been.
One time she fell asleep eating chowder. Later, I found kernels of corn stuccoed all over her couch. Juana took me on a tour of their cleaning products. She showed me how to use carpet cleaner on the diarrhea stains and explained the difference between brands: This one you can use on the couch, this one not.
“Too harsh?” I asked.
She pinched her nose. I understood. Too smelly.
Juana was very emotional about my grandmother’s condition. One afternoon I found her crying in the kitchen. “No more,” she said. “I hate it.”
I hated it, too, but I’d never cried about it. I’d often wanted to, but I wasn’t sure I was able. I patted Juana’s arm. My fingers felt wooden and inhuman.
“You’re very—how do you say?—strong,” she said. “Very strong.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t strong. I was just organized into little sections inside. The sections didn’t touch each other, necessarily. I hadn’t seen some of them for a long time.
I returned to the city after midnight and called the friends I knew would be awake: the ones who didn’t have jobs, the trust-fund artists and the downright poor, the ambiguously depressed, with diagnoses and without, the ones who lived so far into Brooklyn they essentially lived in Jersey. We talked with beer on our breath, leavening our words with wisdom. They talked about how they’d seen rats as large as dogs in their stairways, how they’d unlearned the aesthetic rules of prior centuries. I talked about how I’d faced mortality in Connecticut. We stayed awake until dawn because we wanted to feel reduced by fatigue—in just that way, sharpened into spokes—or else we were afraid of dreaming.
One night I didn’t call anyone. I wanted to find a man, any man, who could offer his face as a label for my loneliness. I already felt alone. I needed this stranger, wherever he was, whoever he was, as proof. I found him at an Irish bar in midtown, a bald man sitting by himself near the bathroom. I liked his voice when he offered me a whiskey. I told him I wanted it neat.
When he repeated my request to the bargirl, he was forceful and assured, as if he understood exactly why I needed it like that. He’d make sure they got it right. If I squinted, his head looked like it was glowing. It was as blurry as a lightbulb seen through tears.
We drank. We talked about the perils of age and the delusions of youth. Sometimes he tapped his skull like a good-luck charm: Knock on wood. He asked me why I was staring at his head. I said, “I like how it gleams.”
I drank a little more. He drank a little more. He said he was a doctor who specialized in brain lesions. “Seek and destroy,” he said fondly, tapping the wood of his scalp once more. I wondered if he’d even gone to med school.
I asked the bargirl for a maraschino cherry so I could chew the stem. How did people tie these with their tongues? It seemed like a testimony to something about the human body, something the mind could not control. Seek and destroy. You could damage any part of the brain you wanted, and some people would still be able to tie those stems into knots. I wouldn’t, but others would.
“I’m only trying to help her,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s enough.”
“Sweet girl.” He smiled. “It’s enough.”
He put his arm around my back, and I felt his hand moving underneath my skirt, grabbing my ass. I slapped his arm. “I’m saying something true about my life.”
“And you don’t even give a fuck.”
He squeezed me harder and laughed. “Of course I don’t.”
I beckoned him closer with one bent finger, made like I was going to tell him a secret. Then I leaned into his ear and spat.
“You little bitch!” he said. “What was that?”
I looked from side to side—for another person’s face, for the door. Whiskey blurred the lights. I didn’t leave any money. I barely stumbled as I left.
One day my friend Alice invited me to a launch party for a film. Not a movie, she said, but a film. Alice was attractive enough to have a good time anywhere. She was half German, half Japanese—“Axis-bred,” she said—and gorgeous, her smooth skin eerie like a doll’s. The certain knowledge of her own allure lay beneath her beauty, its seed as well as its product. She knew how to abuse substances in a serious way without becoming unseemly.
She told me it was going to be absurd, this party, full of people from Los Angeles. “I’m from Los Angeles,” I said.
She paused to consider this. “You are,” she said. “But not like they are.”
She wanted to go early, elevenish. It still meant I would have to skip my trip to Grandma Lucy’s. I called Juana and asked if she would mind bringing some soup that night. Could she stay while Lucy ate it? She could. Sometimes Grandma Lucy spilled on herself without realizing. A streak of tipped-over oatmeal had once left a red flush across her thigh, grains stuck as if they’d been pasted on her skin.
The party was in a dirty Bushwick warehouse. The film, which almost no one had seen, was about schoolyard bullies. The gimmick was the bullies had superpowers, but the good kids had even better ones. There was comic violence but not upsetting violence, for reasons that had to do with ratings. There were possible political implications. A woman at the party was speaking loudly, maybe drunk, maybe sober, about valences. It was an allegory for the war on terror, she said, official torture policy and so on. “So what’s the takeaway?” she said. “All’s fair as long as only the bad guys get hurt?”
Alice had spent the commute telling me about her current lover, his distancing mechanisms and terrible cologne. I could nod in earnest. Louis never wore cologne, but he had plenty of distancing mechanisms, like his wife. He made our silences—our failure to understand each other, his failure to try—seem like inevitable symptoms of the human condition.
Now the party was so loud I could barely hear Alice when she spoke, though I could tell from her face—lips pursed or cracked wry, circling an O toward her frosted martini—whether she was expecting me to laugh or frown. Occasionally, she wanted me to reply. She wanted to know, for example, if Louis’s approach was very theoretical. His approach to what? This was one of the questions I hadn’t heard, or paid attention to, very well. I kept coming back to an image of Grandma Lucy eating dinner: a seersucker robe plastered against her knees, damp with chicken broth, folded over the nest of cracker crumbs and blue pills caught between her cushions. Every so often Alice touched my arm and said something like: “Isn’t that just the intensest?”
Alice and I had eating disorders at the same time in college and shared them like an extracurricular, the way some people share cocaine or volleyball. She taught me her tricks, like drinking hot water to keep warm. She could go through fifteen cups at a meal, wrapping her fingers around each glass to absorb the heat. She told me that green-tea farmers did this during Shizuoka winters in their drafty wooden shacks. She trained herself to believe she had the yearning built into her bones. I thought about her bones more than I thought about other people’s bones. They were like tree branches under her skin. I remembered this old version of Alice like a legend, a collection of surreal details, but really she was just starving, we both were: sick in the heart and showing it.
We recovered together, or said we did, touring a circuit of therapy panels and discussion groups. We made fun of their clichéd slogans and the girls who didn’t look skinny enough to need them. We got a little bigger ourselves. We said we hurt, and this was the truth. We did hurt. We felt something, but we used it, too, and this was the worst part. When we finally saw our pain, dredged it up and spoke it, we found it mangled by our manipulations, the ways we’d twisted it around to get what we wanted. We could barely recognize it. It was barely ours. Then Alice got bad again, worse than I’d ever been, and we kind of drifted apart.
Now we frowned together at our past selves. “That was so fucked up,” Alice said. “How we were back then.” Alice wasn’t plump, but you could see the weight in her breasts. She was a B cup now for sure. She had a strange way of talking about her disease: “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “And the best.”
She was on Prozac now. “It’s a hard drug,” she said. “It takes something.”
It didn’t take everything. She was still an animated storyteller, full of tales about the people who commissioned her art pieces for their lofts and condos. She had a keen interest in other people and a sharp sense of humor whose edges, rising without warning, showed me how I must seem to other people, refracted and grinning like a clown. Once in a while she’d pause in the middle of an anecdote and stare off into the distance, as if scanning the horizon. Maybe she was waiting for the return of her disease or else another kind of trouble. There was this hope in her eyes, just a flicker.
The room around us was full of characters, local and foreign, like smudges brought to life from cartoon strips: hipsters with mullets, in suspenders; girls in leggings, their narrow wrists moving like flying fish through glittering glass bangles. A woman sat with two ferrets curled over her shoulders like parentheses. A man wedged a photograph of David Bowie into the V of his sweater-vest, where his chest hair grew thick and tangled, and asked me to take his picture. “Use my cell phone,” he said. “It has a camera.”
People spoke loudly because they wanted to be heard and overheard by strangers. One woman had gotten another knife commercial but she was worried this meant her hands were too butch. A man was DPing for a documentary about Monopoly buffs in Tennessee. A guy knew a friend of a friend who was making a feature-length about rabies. There were also a lot of people dancing. I liked that.
Alice liked to talk about my second life, up north. “Everyone I know is getting degrees or working,” she said. “But you’re really experiencing something.”
Alice complained about her lover, the one who smelled like European lovemaking, and his vanity complex about her art. “It’s like every canvas is a mirror,” she said. “He just sees himself.”
I saw: broth, robe, pills.
“Lame,” I said.
She said, “It’s not like every piece of art is about him.”
Most of her art probably was about him, or at least the idea of him. I said, “Really lame.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said. “But you use smaller words than you used to.”
Grandma Lucy had a small balcony, tucked between the balconies of finance bachelors, where she liked to sit at twilight, even during winter. Around dusk she got peaceful and confused. Doctors had a name for this. They called it sundowning.
“Dora ran an orphanage in Africa,” she said. “She helped build it. She broke her finger.”
“My mother helps African people, you mean,” I said. “With her law firm.”
A home-care nurse who’d started coming once a week explained about the twilight thing. “It happens with older folks,” she said. “They get confused. It’s like clockwork. Who knows why?”
Sundowning was like shape-shifting. Grandma Lucy’s real self—rambling and delirious, eager to believe in histories that never happened—waited until nightfall and then emerged into the shadows. Lucy would start talking to me like a blind person, her gaze slanted away from my face, as she remembered her lost daughter’s favorite sandwiches and how much trouble Matilda had falling asleep at night.
Between the hard clarity of her days and the medicated speech of her nights, there were these twilights, when it was impossible to tell which parts were real and which might have been imagined.
Matilda could be an actress by now, or a poet or a waitress or a bank teller or simply a suburban mother, quietly stupendous. Lucy said that Matilda was the kind of woman who might have died young. At first it shocked me to hear her imagine the death of her own daughter this way—calmly, a bit wistfully—but I realized death did not make her feel the way it made me feel. It was so near she could almost hear it, a distant hum, and who knew what it held? Maybe it held her daughter, waiting. Maybe it would bring them closer than they’d been.
My mom called me every day. She wanted reports over the phone. “I’m not getting the full story from Mother.” She paused. “She’s always been too damn proud.” She couldn’t see what was happening to her mother’s pride. “Is she eating enough?” she asked. “What is she eating?” I told her about the meals but could not explain the long hours between them—hours of mess and boredom, embarrassments of the body. Nobody can tell you that a person is dying, or what her dying looks like, until you see it for yourself.
Grandma Lucy often spoke about Matilda, though she didn’t talk about why she’d left, or been left, or broken ties, or been broken. She talked only about what her daughter had been like when she was young.
“It never should have happened,” she said once. “It was a terrible thing.”
I thought this would be it, perhaps—a story that had never been told, a story about the break.
“Matilda was just a girl,” she said. “But after him…” Her voice was sharp and singing, as if an old nerve had rubbed raw against the wind.
I got a sick feeling in my stomach. She’d been raped or gotten pregnant.
“She was gone after him. I don’t think I ever found her again.”
One night Alice took me to a play about AIDS in rural Africa. It was performed by a mime troupe, meant to echo those who didn’t have a name for why their families died. They clawed at their skin to mime lesions, and traced bony fingers down their torsos to show the slender sticks that human bodies could become.
Afterward we drank. We drank Jack and Diets and told strangers in a strange bar about this sadness that we’d seen.
A phone call woke me up before dawn. It was four in the morning, and Grandma Lucy had fallen. “I’m alright,” she said. “But I’ve been lying here for hours.”
She’d needed to use the bathroom, she explained, and had forgotten the night-light. It was dark, was the problem, and she’d tripped on a stool.
“Where are you now?” I said. I was already late for work. Ms. Z was having an interview—filmed by someone for something—at an Upper East Side Starbucks.
“I’m near the stove,” Grandma Lucy said. “I’m near the bottom of the stove, but I can also see the living room.”
“The kitchen isn’t on the way to the bathroom,” I said. “You said you were going to the bathroom.”
I never made it to Starbucks. I got a slew of messages from Ms. Z, as I’d known I would. Everything had gone wrong, and there would be hell to pay, and did I know that? Did I really understand that? I’d better. I’d be made to understand, I was assured. At a certain point she asked her housekeeper to keep leaving messages on my machine, once an hour, but the housekeeper’s voice sounded defeated and a little jealous: I’d gotten out. She was still there.
Lucy wasn’t unconscious, just unable to get up again. She was frail as a bird but hard to lift. If any part of her dragged across the floor, her thin skin tore and bled. “Be careful,” she said. “Be careful with me, okay?”
I called my mother. “Things aren’t good out here,” I told her. “I think you should come as soon as you can.”
She said she was finishing a case, and would I believe her— please, because it was true—that this case was a matter of life and death? She booked a plane ticket for the next week. I decided that Grandma Lucy would not spend another night alone. I’d stay on her purple couch until my mother came.
I told Ms. Z that my grandmother had died because this was the only way I could imagine getting the week off. I packed a duffel bag and bought, for once, a one-way ticket on the train. “You don’t have to stay over,” Grandma Lucy said. “I’m doing fine.”
But she seemed pleased when I arrived. She’d made the couch as best she could, sheets tucked messily under cushions. I pictured her hands, quivering, trying to get it right. At night I watched ants crawl in a thin line from the cupboards, quiet and constant as leaking fluid. I drank cheap red wine. It helped the long hours edge away into sleep. One day a black crow dropped the corpse of a mouse onto the frost-slicked windowsill, and I swept it off with a broom, watched it drop three stories to the street below.
It was a week of bitter cold, dirty snow frozen all across the state, but our hours together had the dazed, loose-limbed quality of fever. Grandma Lucy was getting worse. She barely ate. I felt that I could see her body getting smaller across the span of hours. Still, I braved winter to fill the fridge with her favorites: green grapes, whole buttermilk, rice pudding, and seven-ounce bottles of beer that looked as if they’d been designed for the hands of children. She wouldn’t eat much besides the pudding. The grapes were too tart, she said, and the milk too thick, like wet cloth draped across the inside of her throat. “I can’t breathe when I drink it,” she said. “It chokes me up.”
Memories came without warning or context. “She slapped me once,” she said. “Did you know that?”
I shook my head. I could tell from her voice, its somber hush, that she was talking about Matilda.
“I think maybe she could have killed me,” she said. “If she’d been drunk enough.”
“She had a drinking problem?”
Grandma Lucy paused, then shook her head, confused, as if she’d forgotten what I’d asked. “She was so beautiful,” she said. “When she was young.”
I found poems that might lend my life a sense of gravity. I read them in the near-dark, trying to pass the time so I wouldn’t go to bed at such embarrassingly early hours. When you are old and grey and full of sleep…My throat was gritty with wine; anger rose like phlegm. How could anyone write those words once they’d seen aging for themselves? But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,/And loved the sorrows of your changing face. What did young Yeats know about the bodies of old women, how their pubic hair turned ashen between the sticks of their thighs?
I couldn’t look at my own vagina without imagining the labia wilting like a flower. I hadn’t masturbated properly in weeks, and not for lack of trying. I roused dirty old fantasies from my adolescence—rich men paying me for sex, stroking their fat fingers along my spine—but I couldn’t make them work anymore. My body felt pitted, flesh lingering hopelessly around a gutted core: the place orgasms had come from, before the sight of Lucy’s body made them sputter dry.
* * *
I was a little drunk when my mother arrived. Grandma Lucy was asleep. I hadn’t meant to be drunk, but she was two hours late and I’d started to think she wasn’t coming. I opened the door and she hugged me, a quick pressure like a heartbeat. Her hands felt like paws of ice. “Jesus,” she said. “You smell like wine.”
“We had a little with dinner.” My head was still thick with a dark sweet fog. I’d been napping.
“Mother’s been drinking, too?”
“Just beer,” I said. “Like always.”
“She shouldn’t be drinking anything.” She rubbed her hands together. They were ungloved and bluish-pale.
“Cold?” I said. “It’s worst in March, I think. You start hoping it’ll get better, but it doesn’t.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I was outside for an hour at Howard Beach. Some problem with the A downtown.”
She’d come all the way up from the city, saving money on a flight even though she had plenty to spare.
“You want some tea?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t.” She picked up the empty bottle from the table and squinted at the label. “She really needs both of us, Stella. She needs us at full capacity.”
“I needed to relax.”
“Relaxing is never a long-term solution.”
“It’s not a long-term situation, Mom.”
She set down the bottle abruptly. “Don’t talk like that,” she said. “At least not around me.”
She started collecting things from the floor, books and magazines, and piling them on the table. Her own living room was perfectly neat. Even the kitchen was spotless. That was how she lived. I could remember her getting angry at my father before work, storming out the front door, yelling, “Come on, Jay, your crap is all over the house.”
And I remember his reply: “I live here. My crap lives here.”
Now she frowned at the piles she was making, rearranging them.
“It’s been hard,” I said. “I’m no good at this.”
“At helping her get old, or stopping her from getting old, or whatever I’m supposed to be doing to help. It’s too much, you know? All this falling down, all her drugs, all her daydreams and her shitting and everything. She’s so skinny, Mom. You’ll see.”
Even in bed, lying down, swaddled like a baby in the direct line of her space heater, Grandma Lucy showed the skeletal lines of her decline. “Oh, Mother.” My mother sighed. “Look at you.”
Everything she noticed felt like blame: I can’t believe she lives like this, looking at the mess, and of course I’d been looking at it for months. What are all these drugs? she said. Where are the prescriptions? I couldn’t tell her because I didn’t know. Grandma Lucy had filled them herself a long time ago, or maybe given them to Juana, but she couldn’t remember the names when I asked. The bottles were empty in the cupboard, all of them jumbled. Well, this is no good, my mom said. No good at all.
She thought the whole place was depressing.
“She fixed up the inside how she likes,” I said. I’d been hating it for weeks, all the bright matching colors, their symmetries like sutures stitching up wounds. But now I felt defensive.
My mom suggested I take the weekend off. “I’m here now. I’ve got things covered.”
I saw her pulling up my sheets from the couch.
“You’re not sleeping here?” I said.
“I’m sleeping with her,” she said.
I couldn’t imagine my mother sharing a bed with anyone.
“And what am I supposed to do?” I said. “While you’re taking care of everything?”
“Why don’t you take a trip with your professor?” she said. “Isn’t that the kind of thing that makes you happy?”
I grabbed her wrist. “Why are you mad?”
She paused, considering her words. “It’s gotten so bad. I just wish you’d told me.”
“I did,” I said. “I tried.”
I called Louis from the train. Ordinarily, there would have been pride blocking my voice, getting in the way, but here I was, saying, “Take me anywhere,” adding, “If you can get away, I mean.”
“I’ll see what I can swing,” he said.
Crises made a difference to him. They could turn you into someone else, or they could become you. They were becoming.
He and his wife lived in TriBeCa, but he had a little cabin in Vermont near the Mad River Valley. That’s where we were going. I think he told his wife it was a place where he could find himself—when really, of course, it was a place he brought women. I didn’t kid
The Gin Closet
- Free Press |
- 288 pages |
- ISBN 9781439157879 |
- February 2010
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
The Gin Closet recounts the story of a family stricken by grief, loss, and addictions. Told from the perspective of two narrators—Stella, a young cosmopolite searching for meaning, and Tilly, her estranged alcoholic aunt—the story follows what happens when Stella and Tilly meet after decades of separation, and tracks the unlikely friendship that forms between them. Both women struggle with addictions—Tilly abuses alcohol and Stella is a recovering anorexic. In the midst of their hardships they come to understand what it means to love the family you’re given, no matter the cost.
Questions for Discussion
1. The novel opens with the decline and eventual death of Grandma Lucy, as told from Stella’s point of view. Stella describes her Grandmother’s declining quality of life: “You couldn’t yearn like this unless you’d been lonely for years, practicing” (5). Consider how the sickness and death of Lucy illuminates the see more