Thursday, August 11, 2011
I'd lie, of course. Perversity, like the camera, adds ten pounds.
"One thirty-five," I'd venture. "One thirty-two." Or, once, daringly, "one forty." Just to see the skin crumple around her eyes, her lipsticked mouth turn in on itself. She wore too-bright lipstick, corals and roses. Her eyes, small sharp and formerly brown, looked as if they'd been dipped in sugar.
"I can't see," she'd fret. "Do you go to a lot of parties?"
"I never go to parties." Like her, I used the same lines over and over, but I would try, every time, to twist them, find a way to make them sharper. "No one invites me."
"I can't see," she'd repeat, folding and unfolding her hands.
This was, by and large, our only coversation. We repeated it, with subtle alterations, throughout the last years of my grandmother's life. It was our chaconne, our theme and variations. We fell into the conversation so naturally, so unpremeditatedly, that it was almost as if, walking along, we'd started to hum an old hymn tune or the ABCs.
It was cruel of me to lie. I recognize that now and I recognized it then. I did it anyway. I was skinny enough, but I wished my body were different. I went to parties, but I wanted to be invited to more. I was not as pretty or as popular as my grandmother wanted me to be, but neither was I as gallumphing and dour as I claimed. I was somewhere in the middle: just one more young woman slogging through the slow years of youth.
I was cruel, but I didn't care. If she would just be stop asking what I looked like, I reasoned, I could return to my dogged cultivation of the belief that what you looked like didn't count. And I wanted, desperately, to believe that what you looked like didn't count.
I took to wearing baggy pants and thermal t-shirts. My grandmother's nurse took to applying her lipstick; she couldn't make out her own mouth in the mirror. On nice days, my grandmother sat on the porch and had her nails done and I searched for the most shocking, most awful thing I could say about myself, the thing that would be so large, so round and dreadful, it would sit in her open mouth like an apple in the mouth of a pig, shut her up.
"Do boys ask you out?"
"No." A lie, but not much of one. It was only the sad or scary boys, and I didn't want any of them.
"Do you have a lot of friends?
"I don't have any friends." A bigger lie, with a nice, raw edge.
My mother told me that my grandmother grew up with money and maids, but that her father, who owned orange grove after orange grove in Florida, had lost everything when the stock market crashed. My grandmother was nineteen. She'd had cooks, but now she had nothing. Her father died. They lost the house. My grandmother went to work as a nurse. She didn't like nursing. She wanted to study English, get married, throw parties. She did eventually marry, but her husband divorced her, so she had to go back to work. She didn't go quietly. She didn't forgive anyone, for anything, ever.
I told her my true weight, once, shortly before she died. It was in a fit of remorse. She was lying there semi-conscious, dessicated in her bed, her lips nude and cracked and her hair ragged. She hadn't been to the hairdresser in weeks; someone had clipped her nails down close to the nail beds. I told her I loved her, which was another lie, but only just. Then I told her, silently, the three numbers I saw every morning on the scale.
After she retired from nursing, my grandmother threw parties. Gourmet, dressed-up, best-china parties to which she invited all her friends, other southern widows (by this time, my grandmother was putting it about that her husband had died) who threw gourmet, dressed-up, best-china parties. That's how I like to think of her, when I think of her. Deep into those evenings, champagne or sherry, every woman sloe-eyed, with a tidy waist.