Saturday, July 24, 2010

Grace


She walks to the market in her Cowdillac T-shirt. She’s had it for years but couldn’t describe what it looks like without looking down at it--a vintage Cadillac painted in cowhide on a faded cerulean background. She’s forgotten; it’s been so long since she thought it was funny and her mother bought it for her. Now she just throws it on. It’s an around-the-house T-shirt, not for around-the-town. She wears it when she doesn’t care what she looks like, even though when she looks her worst there is a loveliness about her.

This morning, fresh-scrubbed except for her unwashed golden hair pulled back in a ponytail, Grace is beautiful. Her tawny legs are thin yet strong under the boxer shorts and she is the kind of girl men remember falling in love with in high school.

Grace is fifteen and has the rest of her life and the world ahead of her. She has been coming to the summer place in Cabo San Lucas with her mother, Rose, since she was four years old. Since before she can almost remember, though she does clearly recall one thing earlier: lying on her back in her crib, watching the shadow forms projected by the Calderesque mobile one of Rose’s men had made out of a clothes hanger and found objects. She remembers feeling content, yet wondering why no one was coming to pick her up and hold her; why a breast wasn’t offered to suckle. Years later she surmised that her mother had probably been engaged in sex that morning, one of the few when Grace hadn’t awakened wailing, as her mother claimed was Grace’s M.O. Grace remembers the utter peace she felt that morning, absorbed by the floating cardboard amoebas, the unfiltered cigarette, and the tiny gear, all connected by clear filament suspended above her.

Now, unlike that day, Grace is impatient. Even on vacation she takes long strides; her gait is purposeful. It is a kind of game. My goal is to get some leche for my granola. Local milk for the La Brea bakery granola her mother splurged on for the summer. It is the only kind of cereal Grace likes, though she is not fussy about anything else. Clothes--T-shirts, for example--she wears until they tear or Rose throws them in what she calls the “rag-and-bone shop” to be used for cleaning. Grace doesn’t indulge in buying make-up like her friends every time she goes into Sav-On or Thrifty. Instead she gets Rose’s cast-off thirty-five dollar Chanel gloss-and-lipliner compacts which Grace decides, as Rose did, don’t suit her anyway. She uses only the gloss, when her lips get burned from the sun.

Rose is not rich but has always worked and had what she refers to as “fuck you” money. She has told Grace that having this is basic to a woman’s well-being and freedom. Not so much from men but from the vagaries of The World. Rose insists that it is hard out there, but Grace at fifteen sees only blue skies and glides through life. She sometimes thinks this annoys more than pleases her mother.

Rose has been down a rather rocky road. Her first husband, a man she had been “terribly” in love with from high school, committed suicide when he was just twenty-three. Afterwards Rose had a series of affairs and conceived Grace, whose father was Rose’s comp lit professor. Rose’s family promptly ostracized her although they continued to send her money. She moved into a commune and gave birth to Grace with the help of a hippie midwife and the midwife’s boyfriend, who held Rose’s hand through the “blessed ordeal,” as Rose put it, and ended up with a bloody palm. Telling that part always made Rose laugh.

For a while after Grace was born, her mother was with a gentle man in the commune who, Rose thought, was more drawn to Grace than herself, which she confessed she had somewhat resented. Rose left the commune after she got her degree; she took her own apartment and put Grace in daycare. Rose got a tedious job at a bank which she described as “sticking pushpins in a map,” although Grace thought there had to be something more to it. Eventually Rose landed a position as a graphic designer for an ad agency and married Tad, one of the account execs. Tad was sweet with thick dark blond hair and he liked to roughhouse with Grace and teach her how to play softball and rollerblade. Grace sensed even then that Tad really wanted a son. Grace liked Tad deeply, but after seven years her mother grew discontent with Tad’s exhuberant predictability. Rose was at the time in her mid-thirties and, Grace suspected, tired of his eternal boyishness, and yearning for the kind of “terrible” love she had had with her first husband.

“Where is the goddamned intensity in this life,” Rose once asked the inside of the refrigerator, angry at having forgotten what she gone to retrieve, no doubt ruminating on what she had lost.

So they took an apartment in the city and left Tad with the house in Oakland. Grace still imagines Tad watching sports on TV, despondent, running his hands through his dishwater hair. One day she would sneak back and visit and call him “Daddio” and he’d give her a sip of his beer as always and ask about her mom. They’d shoot some baskets and he’d invite her back for some of his atomic spaghetti but Grace would know he’d never be up to making it without her mother.

Then Rose met Paul and, as she put it, all hell broke loose in her gut. Grace thought that was a pretty yucky way to talk about love or passion but her mother said she would understand when she was old enough to read D.H. Lawrence. “There’s nothing nice or pretty about love between a man and a woman,” she cautioned Grace.

“Then why--”

“Because it’s brutal and wonderful. And necessary. Trust me--that’s everything you need to know.”

Paul was an artist, a painter with a small local reputation and, fortunately, a larger family inheritance. He was tall and rail thin with a ponytail like Grace’s. He wore mostly black and had the kind of off center looks which Grace noted older women referred to as “attractive” or “compelling.” She liked that Paul talked to her as if she were an adult, which was flattering. Unfortunately, Rose’s fire for Paul burned out quickly.

The one constant in Grace’s life aside from her mother was going to Cabo in the summers. The men were not allowed. The first time, Grace and her mother had camped in a desolate area with no running water, but Rose declared that no picnic. (“I’m afraid the Woodstock Years are over, Grace.”) The next year Rose found a tiny hillside bungalow which they had rented every year since. It was spartan yet lovely, and close enough for Grace to walk into town.

Grace steps into the tiny corner market where Carlos holds court. He likes to impress Grace with the latest CD’s in his collection. He’ll hold up his newest acquisition but Grace never has the heart to tell him she played it to death six months ago. This time, as always, Grace, being kind, nods and goes with Carlos out the back of the store where they sit on webbed beach chairs and listen to the music on the portable disc player strategically placed in the dirt between them.

Later, Rose wonders why it took Grace an hour to get milk; when Grace explains, she gets a lecture about sublimating one’s own desires to please men.

“I don’t have those kinds of desires,” Grace says, huffily, lying. “And Carlos is a boy, not a man, anyway.” She wonders what set Rose off.

“What kinds of desires do you have?” Rose wants to know. “The desire to be left alone, missy, huh?” Rose baits Grace and then attacks her mercilessly with tickling, sending Grace into paroxysms of delight.

In the evenings they sit always with their legs dangling off the porch, watching the sun set “über das Pacific,” as they have jokingly come to refer to it after Rose saw Grace poking through an old copy of Nietzsche. Her mother would be working a Cuba Libre and Grace would sip what her mother called a “Liberated Cuban”--Coke with lime, “mit out” rum.

“Don’t you mean a Virgin Libre?” Grace once asked her mother. “A virgin is liberated, Grace. Don’t ever think otherwise.” Grace had gotten peeved because she then knew that Rose could tell she was still a virgin. Grace knew a couple of other fifteen-year-olds who weren’t. She wondered if Carlos, a year younger, was experienced or not.

“When you lose your virginity?”

“What.”

“What happens?”

“You know what happens, sweetie.” The endearment was rare, cutesy for Rose, but then she was on her second Cuba Libre.

“No, I mean the all the other stuff,” Grace pleaded, wanting to be let in on the secrets.

“You’ll find out soon enough.” A different, clipped Rose kicked in, and she had that same puzzled, vacant look she had had the time she spoke to the interior of the Frigidaire.

“Isn’t it peaceful here without the men,” Rose sighed. Grace leaned her head on her mother’s shoulder; she did indeed feel utter peace. Like the morning in her crib she had never told Rose about.

Grace stared at the pink eraser speck on her black desk. Black was a void, but black collected. Bits of things. Smudges and fingerprints. Her mind was black. Everything stuck to it. Already she felt the memories like palpable ghosts.

Grace’s mother was sick. Rose would cough, pretending to have TB, which she believed a more romantic disease than cancer. Grace said nothing but bought cough medicine and put it on her mother’s night table next to the long candle gathering dust in its hollow. Rose never acknowledged this gesture of Grace’s, but Grace saw her swig the cough syrup from time to time and it made her happy, as if Rose were knocking back another Cuba Libre. Rose, former hippie, career artist (Paul had been the “pure” artist--or “Ivory Tower” artist when Rose had been annoyed with him), hard-as-a-rock mother was taking Grace’s gift as a cure.

Grace secretly hoped it would work. Her mother had a strange mind, Grace thought, and hence, it followed, a strange body. Grace thought it might just be possible. So much so that for Grace the cough medicine replaced prayer, which she was not expert at, gleaning only what she had from Rose’s long-lapsed Catholicism. Grace appealed only to the Virgin Mary, an indirect approach but the thing that made sense for a girl to do. As her mother had told her more than once, women need to support each other. Grace came to imagine Greek columns in the shape of women. Men would probably design them as giant Barbie dolls. You can’t trust the world to men, Grace was sensing on her own.

They stopped going to Cabo. The times in Baja had come to represent well-being. Rose and Grace would run around half-naked, but now that her mother had only one breast, they no longer did so. Rose couldn’t bear it, even though Cabo had never been a place for the men.

Grace wondered sometimes what Carlos was up to. Whether he had inherited the tiny market. Or become a drifter, which is what the now embittered Rose said all men were at heart, although she was the one who mostly left them.

“They come and then they drift off,” she would chuckle as she exhaled smoke. It wasn’t until years later that Grace got the sexual entendre.

Grace suspected that Carlos was not the drifter type. She could see him running marlin fishing excursions for tourists. But at night she could only imagine him sitting by himself in the beach chair, listening to his latest CD. She wondered if he ever had thought about her sexually.

In the winter, Rose met Ken. Well, didn’t exactly meet him. He was one of her doctors. A resident. In his presence Rose referred to herself as his “casualty” case. Ken seemed embarrassed by this. Grace commented upon it and Rose said it was because doctors were never taught bedside manners. Grace asked exactly what she meant.

“It’s simple, sweetheart,” her mother said. “They’re taught everything except how to relate to people.”

Nevertheless, Ken and Rose did begin to relate, even though he was quite a bit younger than she. After Rose’s mastectomy, when she absolutely refused reconstructive surgery or even a prosthesis, she would see Ken from time to time for coffee. A series of dinners ensued.

Grace had reached an age at which she was starting to date. One night Grace was in her bra and panties picking out an outfit. She caught her mother staring at her breasts. Rose said that at Grace’s age she used to stuff her bras with tissues to fill them out. Now she would need a boxful. Rose laughed and Grace knew it was to cover a potential crying jag.

Grace left with her date as her mother began the makings of a martini. She was becoming quite a drinker. Instead of cooking she made a new cocktail each day. A Grasshopper. A Rob Roy. The Bartender’s Guide had become Rose’s bible, but to Grace’s relief, Rose, feeling ascetic, limited herself to one cocktail per night. Still, the liquor cabinet was overflowing. There were even bottles of gin and vodka in the freezer. Coconut creme for piña coladas. She drank everything but Cuba Libres.

One night, when Grace’s date dropped her off after a kiss or two and some awkward fondling, she heard strange sounds coming from the living room. It was summer and only the screen door was closed. Grace stood there a moment, puzzled by the noises in the dark. When she realized they were the sounds of sex, she didn’t at first know what to do. Then her eyes adjusted and in the moonlight she could make out her mother and Dr. Ken, as Rose referred to him, on the couch together. Rose was on top of him, unclothed from the waist down, her T-shirt knotted up around her slim rib cage. Dr. Ken was moaning as if in pain, but strangely, Rose was silent. She moved rhythmically, as if in a dream state. Grace knew it was wrong to watch them but she was afraid that if she moved they would hear her and the spell would be broken.


Rose was holding Dr. Ken’s arms down so he couldn’t caress her. Finally she sighed with some kind of resigned relief and then Dr. Ken grabbed her behind and moved his body hard against her and he groaned, startling Grace. Finally he pulled Rose down to him and stroked her hair. It was not very different from the way Rose used to stroke Grace’s hair.

Grace tip-toed back down the front steps, opened and slammed the car door in the drive, and took her time walking back to the front door. A light went on and Grace walked in. Not skipping a beat, Rose asked Dr. Ken--both now clothed but disheviled--if he’d like another drink. He said no, he had early rounds, and bid them both goodnight, looking meaningfully at Rose, a look which Grace knew Rose could not, at this juncture in her life or health return. Grace kissed her mother on the cheek and went to bed. Grace would never lose the image of her mother riding Dr. Ken, mixing her pain with pleasure. That night, Grace found her own desire and fell into her first adult sleep.

The next morning the world was different. It was Saturday, and Grace slept in, but not so late that she felt loggy. She loped down the stairs and felt with pleasure the movement of her breasts, whole and free. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and put her hands on them a moment, feeling herself with joy and experiencing for the first time the power of her youth and beauty. What it meant to be young, the future full of mystery and promise.

Grace walked into the kitchen to find her mother haggard, a cigarette hanging limply from her mouth.

“Morning, Sunshine,” Rose said. Grace took the cigarette out of her mother’s mouth and threw it down the disposal. She didn’t know where her mother had gotten it. She knew Dr. Ken didn’t smoke.

“Does it really matter at this point?” Rose asked rhetorically. Grace got some sourdough bread from the fridge and put it in the toaster. Her back turned, she said, “I saw you and Dr. Ken. On the couch last night.”

Rose looked at her daughter hard.

“I didn’t mean to...eavesdrop--”

“Peep,” Rose interrupted.

"I didn’t peep. I came home and you were both just...there. I didn’t know what to do.”

“That’s euphemistic.”

Grace turned around, angry, but Rose was suddenly wistful.

“I’m sorry, Gracie.” Rose hadn’t called her that in a decade. “It’s not like the old days anymore. You know, B.C.” Before Cancer.

Grace said softly, “Mom, when are you going to stop feeling sorry for yourself?” Rose looked at her only child with more determination than Grace had ever seen in her mother.

“Never. I’m entitled to every shred of that particular emotion.”

As if on cue, Grace’s toast popped up. She buttered it in silence and gave her mother, now buried in the daily crossword, a new preoccupation, a bite. Then Grace took the funnies. It was almost like the old days.

Rose and Dr. Ken became quite an item that winter. He even came over for Christmas dinner, which Rose cooked full tilt for the first time since she got sick. Grace invited her boyfriend, who was coincidentally also named “Ken.” Instead of calling the doctor “Ken” and Grace’s beau “Kenny,” Rose referred to them at table as Ken I (her man) and Ken II (Grace’s).

“Ken II, would you like some more turkey?” Rose’s politesse didn’t betray a hint of irony or humor. But when he said yes, he would, Rose told him to just go ahead and help himself.

“Carve away,” she laughed, a little high from the Nouveau Beaujolais that Ken I had brought to the feast. The teens were offered some, but Ken II asked if he might have a beer instead. Grace held her breath. She didn’t know how much accommodation Rose could muster these days. Grace was embarrassed herself by his juvenile request and his naiveté.

Ken I was concentrating on scooping a crater in his mashed potatoes for the gravy. Rose appeared not to have heard Ken II and just poured a little wine in both the kids’ glasses. Ken II shrugged and clinked glasses with Grace.

After dinner Rose declared herself exhausted, just exhausted.

“I cooked all day and it’s over in less than an hour. Don’t you find that absurd?” she posed to Ken I, who looked bewildered, his mouth full.

“I think this is the best Thanksgiving dinner I ever had, Mrs.--” Ken II started.

“Please.” Rose hated to be called “Mrs.” But Ken II thought her response had to do with modesty, so little did he have a sense of her.

“No kidding. I wish my mom could cook this good.” Grace winced at his grammar. Why didn’t you say well, she thought. She glanced at her mother, who told her with her eyes to dismiss the lapse. Rose liked Ken II. She wouldn’t have called him Ken II if she didn’t.

“So the upshot is, you guys will have to clean up.” I’m done in for the rest of the day.” And with that, Rose retired to the living room couch, where she turned on the TV with the remote. This was rude and odd, because Rose never watched television. Grace knew something had forever changed. The two Kens kept eating, blissfully unaware of the irony of a woman with one breast retiring to what she had always called the boob tube.

As Grace and her boyfriend picked up the plates a few minutes later, Grace was touched to see that Dr. Ken had put his hand on her mother’s forehead. He wasn’t checking for fever. It was more priestly, like he was blessing her on her journey.

They took one last trip to Cabo. As always, it was without the men. It was the spring following that Christmas, and Rose was due to have her remaining breast removed when they returned. Dr. Ken had begged her not to wait for “the operation”(“Call it a goddamn mastectomy--you’re a doctor,” Rose had cried, collapsing into his arms and beating her fists against him). Grace had never seen her mother so angry, so beaten down by life. But now, here in Cabo, Rose seemed some particle of her old self again.

Shortly after the holidays Grace had lost her virginity with Ken II. She knew she wasn’t in love with him but something in her was ready and she knew he was the right one, with his sweet gangliness and the cascading cordovan-dyed hair that she loved to watch sweep across his face. She didn’t tell her mother about it. But she knew that Rose knew, because the morning after, Rose did a very strange, wonderful thing: she brought Grace French toast with cinnamon in bed.

When Grace was little, before she was allowed to operate the toaster oven or knew how to cook anything, she would sprinkle cinnamon on bare bread and bring it to her mother in a colander (she couldn’t reach the cabinet with the dishes), a morning offering. Rose never minded that the colander leaked cinnamon all over the covers and she ate the dry bread with gusto, even when Grace forgot the orange juice to wash it down. Grace would take a bite of her own piece and let the bread stick to the roof of her mouth, savoring the cinnamon. It was like a few years later, when she secretly went to Mass with a Catholic friend and Jesus-in-the-form-of-a-Communion wafer got stuck to the roof of her mouth, and she wished she had gone to the Protestant service where they purportedly got some wine as well. Grace never told her mother about that.

On this Cabo morning Rose had made a breakfast of fruit and Mexican pastries, and they ate in virtual silence, scrunched together in Grace’s twin bed. Occasionally they would look at each other and smack their lips and smile. Afterwards Grace lay on her mother’s flat right chest and stroked her, and the two fell back to sleep.

They were awakened by the telephone ringing.

“You get it, Grace. I’m sure it’s your man calling for you.”

But it was Carlos. Grace had looked him up. He said he was now training to manage his uncle’s restaurant and invited her there. Rose said it was okay, she just wanted to sleep, so Grace went down that afternoon.

Carlos had a girlfriend, Almia, who looked at Grace askance but had no need to: Almia was very beautiful, with long shiny dark hair and heat in her eyes. Grace would always be pretty, but she knew she would never exude that kind of heat, though she might feel it inside. Sometimes when she touched her breasts, thinking of her Ken, she would feel a spark, a line of electricity that traveled straight to her womb. It was odd, though, how it happened more when she thought about Ken touching her than when he actually did it. Her breasts made her feel sexual. She understood now what her mother had lost.

“You bring your mother here to dinner,” Carlos told her. “I’ll make sure it’s special.” Grace thanked him and left under Almia’s intense scrutiny of the gringa.

Carlos kept his promise and treated Rose and Grace well, giving them the best table in the house and refusing to let them pay. Almia, it turned out, worked there as a hostess. She wore a fashionable slip dress with a tiny T underneath.

“Your friend Carlos has found himself quite a sultry woman,” Rose commented over the flan. Grace bristled over Rose’s assessment of Almia as a woman, knowing that Rose still considered Grace girl or at best a “young woman.” Then Grace wondered if she was jealous of Almia because she was sultry or because Grace herself was somewhere attracted to Carlos. But she dismissed this, thinking that if she had to wonder it probably didn’t exist.

“But she seems not to be Carlos’ type.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Grace was annoyed but Rose either didn’t pick up on it or ignored it.

“Well, he’s sweet. I always imagined him with a more naive girl, a warmer type. Like you.”

“You think I’m naive?”

“Not exactly. But you have a purity about you that suggests innocence and naiveté. I think your soul is pure in ways that mine never was.”

“It is not.”

“I meant it as a compliment, Daughter.”

Her mother took her hand and Grace let her hold it. Shortly thereafter they thanked Carlos and Almia, bid them goodnight, and walked all the way back to their bungalow. Cabo was so built up now that there was a lot of ambient light. Yet you could still see the stars and feel your wonderful insignificance in their universe. The night was dry and fragrant and full of the sound of waves. Carlos had this every day. Grace wondered if he realized this.

The day before they were to leave Cabo, Grace went down to the pier to watch the marlin fishers (as Rose called them--”fishermen” was not acceptable). When Grace returned she spied her mother on the veranda, basking in the sun like it was a memory. Rose was topless. Grace’s breath stopped. On her mother’s chest was an obscene fissure, as if someone had tried to butcher a woman into manhood. Grace couldn’t stop staring. It was the first time she had seen it. Her mother’s left breast lay flat and low, but it was still part of her womanhood. It was as though the other half of Rose had been plucked by some cruel Grecian god or beast. But as Grace stood and looked, the scar turned beautiful in the hideous bravery it objectified. It was like a road, or a mountain range on a map. Not neat and straight, but very much the road and range of Rose’s fractured life. The remaining breast simply seemed tired in comparison. But the longer Grace watched, strangely, Rose seemed to her whole. Rose was luxuriating in the sun as she had in her young years, without loss and anger.

It was at that moment that Grace realized that her mother was going to die. When she seemed the most alive of any time in recent history. Grace knew, too, that Rose did not intend to return home, would not have the operation and let Ken I or any other man take her remaining breast and still love her. She was whole within herself but outwardly she was, would always be, a broken woman.

Grace went back home without her mother. Dr. Ken cried and wanted to pack and go get Rose, but Grace put her arm on him, and whatever love and self-absorption he was indulging was replaced by sudden clarity.

“Your mother...” was all he said, shaking his head, full of commiseration and appreciation.

Grace had asked Carlos to look in on Rose, and when she got very sick he called immediately and Grace went back down and clasped Rose’s hand in the local hospital, watching her accept death, finally content in her railed bed like a crib.

Grace, feeling a woman now, goes in and closes up the bungalow. She finds her old Cowdillac T-shirt in the rag-and-bone shop, smiles, and tucks it in her backpack. She understands for the first time why her mother had never brought any of their men here. It was Rose’s way of reminding herself that we live and we die separately, not in a commune or even a family but in the bed we have made our self.



“....Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

--William Butler Yeats



(c) 1995 Sharon Moore
Originally apppeared in
A Room of One's Own
Fall/Winter 1996
Vol. 19:3

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