by ARIANNE WACK
When I was 22 years old I fell in love for the third time. Her name was Lucy and she was just the thing I never knew I wanted. My collegiate lesbian fling went wrong somewhere in the first three hours, when I began to love her in that deeply fascinated but grounding kind of way. She asked, Did I want to carve a pumpkin? We roasted the seeds and sat on her stoop until the dark hours turned pale. She was gentle and cautious and nudged something latent inside me until it sat on my sleeve. I felt a violent tug — on my heart, yes — but on my belly button, too. I felt fully qualified to love this person.
It took me about five months before I really started tasting the residue of our last conversation. She had been sick and depressed, taking a lot of medications without the talk therapy. I gave her diatribes on how she should eat healthier, not check her phone first thing in the morning, how she should breathe deeper longer better. She stared at me with wet and blank eyes and said all she really wanted was for me to say it would be OK.
People can only give advice in relation to what they know.
After five years, I was unable to identify Lucy by any of her characteristics. She became a knot of emotions — a bundle that lived and breathed memories, a piece of me living somewhere else, and I am still missing some of my parts.
I had known Fox for less than 24 hours when I went over to his grandmother’s house. It was one of those big pre-fab, central Florida homes. All cinderblock and linai and hardly any window. Everything was that minty pale color old people’s homes seem to take on as they edge closer to death. The kind of Easter egg hues that have been bleached by too much sun. There was an area rug in the living room, very thick and comfortable to walk on. We had taken off our shoes at the door. The rug was also mint green and had a border of soft pink and white rosemaling. The living room and kitchen were decorated with the porcelain and Murano glass knickknacks people collect on retirement vacations to Europe. The whole house was muffled, sounds and colors blurred at the edges like portraits of babies. Everything was vaguely wrinkled and smelled like talcum powder, the cheeks of old ladies.
There were two couches; one was white leather and cracked grey along the edges where sweaty knee pits had rubbed up against it. The other couch looked like an heirloom. It had stout, clawed wooden legs with an uncomfortable cushion upholstered in the embroidered fabric of southern colonial furniture. It was the sort of European baroque knock-off you find in fancy nursing homes.
The first thing Fox’s grandmother wanted to know was if my friend and I were sisters. My friend Sara is tall and svelte. She models and has skin peppered with freckles and bright red hair. I am short and blonde, with Mediterranean hips and skin. Sara and I looked each other over, startled, to see if there was something we had missed in our six years of friendship. We were relieved to find each other just the same, and giggled out a “No.”
I don’t remember what Fox’s grandmother’s name was.
We were there because Fox had agreed to help his dad install a new TV. The TV was very large and boxy, a model from the 90’s, and was going into a guest room. It seemed unnecessary: the house was so quiet, so muted with age. No one else lived there.
Fox and his dad disappeared down the hallway with the TV, and his grandmother asked Would Sara or I like something to drink? Some Sprite? Coke? Water? I said No thank you, and Sara asked for water. Neither of us drink pop. But we each got a glass of Sprite with ice cubes. Sara and I sat on seperate couches, enjoying the air-conditioning and chatting affably about how we knew her grandson. (Sara had met Fox one summer when she worked at an all girls camp in Maine).
When the introductory conversation had reached its dead end, Fox’s grandmother began asking us questions that weren’t really questions. They were sentences saddled with a puzzled look and a pause just long enough for Sara and I to shift uncomfortably in our seat. I grabbed for a few words I hoped would belie comprehension.
It was obvious she was excited about visitors. To have someone to talk to.
After a little while, Fox came out and said, “You should show them your beads, Grandma — They’ve got to see the beads.”
We got up and followed his grandmother down a carpeted hallway. I could see into the room the TV had been installed in. It had a guest bed and the kind of fold out tables used with TV dinners. The TV looked like a giant black stain in sea-foam haze. We turned a corner and I noticed his grandmother was wearing a white moo-moo. It had little pillies on it, like old sheets or vintage t-shirts get. The fabric was sheer from being washed too many times. It had a few holes and I could see she wasn’t wearing anything underneath it. She was thin and marked with sunspots and varicose veins. She had on white socks that crumpled around her ankles as she shuffled along the carpet.
Her bedroom was full of the shell-shaped furniture that is stylish in Florida timeshares and furnished condos. Everything still that sun-bleached Easter egg color. She went to her closet and opened the doors. It was a walk-in the size of my bedroom in New York. She turned on the light and Sara and I blinked, dazzled by the glitter of thousands of colorful beads, hanging from the two rows of aluminum shelving that lined the walls.
Strings of beads cascaded down, some all the way to the floor. Her closet was lined with an impenetrable armor of plastic and semi-precious stones. It was draped with hundreds of dollars of beads and it had the effect of being in a sparkling Bedouin tent. All the necklaces were hung on circular shower hooks — about six to each hook — and there were at least 400 hooks. It was beautiful to run your hands through them and feel the weight of her work.
Sara and I were in shock. We stared at Fox and his grandmother and then back at each other.
“How long did all this take?” — “They’re beautiful” — “This is incredible.” — “It’s like a dream.”
Fox’s grandmother smiled kindly and said, “You must take some! Choose any ones you like! I used to make them all the time! 20 years I was making beads!”
We ran our hands along the necklaces like they were prayer wheels, listening to the sound they made, like rain. We fingered through them. I felt like I was two-steps behind my actual self, not understanding what I was seeing while I was seeing it.
“That’s not even half of them,” Fox said, “There’s more in her dressers and in the other rooms.”
His grandmother started opening up all the drawers, it wasn’t clear where she kept any of her clothes, or if she had any other clothes besides the nightgown. A house that had seemed so big and empty was secretly sanctuary to an obsessive hobby. The drawers were tidy piles of necklaces. There were enough beads to fill a beach. Each dresser reminded me of a treasure chest: a pirate’s booty for a little girl playing make-believe.
I asked again, “How long did this take?”
“20 years,” she said.
And then Fox, loud enough for his grandmother to hear, “Like two.”
His grandmother didn’t correct him and she didn’t seem to notice his eulogy to her two years of necklace making. When she picked up the hobby, everyone began bringing her beads. From thrift stores or Michael’s, anywhere they found them. Neighbors and grandchildren brought her beads and she made more and more necklaces.
Two years of filling the empty spaces of her home with jewelry she never wore. Three other bedrooms had closets and dressers of beads. It was a profoundly productive kind of OCD.
Sara and I began shrouding ourselves in necklaces. Some went past our hips, our knees even, and we had to wrap them around two or three times. I felt like a cheap mermaid. We could have been topless and you’d never know.
As we walked out of her bedroom, Fox’s grandmother looked at me disapprovingly. One of my necklaces was too long, she said. “Honey, you’ve got to wrap that one again otherwise it’s going to get caught up in your hoo-ha,” grabbing me between the legs as she said it. She held her hand there for a few seconds as I turned beet red and giggled in a stalemated way. Sara laughed her ass off.
Fox’s grandmother looked at her grandson, and then back at me.
“But if it does get stuck up there, I know someone who can get it out for you.” And she made that tongue licking motion. “Like that, right?” she asked Fox, continuing to eat out the air.
We went to Denny’s for lunch. Fox’s grandmother must have had a wardrobe somewhere because she suggested that us kids go ahead and reserve a table so she could get changed. Sara and I piled into Fox’s El Camino, next to the old TV.
We arrived at Denny’s still wearing our brocade of beads, looking like a mixed breed of hooker and gypsy all wrapped up in Mardi gras. We took a large booth in the smoking section and suffered the skeptical glances of retirees and vacationing families. Sara and I ordered fries and two glasses of water.
Fox’s grandmother came wearing the same transparent moo-moo and crumpled socks, but with high-heels. It was a marvel she could walk given her insubstantial bone mass and the slipperiness of socks in heels. She wore large clip-on earrings and a wonderfully tasteless shade of coral rogue on her cheeks and mouth. I could still see through her dress.
Fox and his Dad ordered omelets even though it was passed noon. Fox’s grandmother ordered a salad with chicken and ate only the chicken. The conversation lollygagged between mouths full of egg and hashbrown. Mostly Fox’s dad talked about his job as a dentist and growing up in Brooklyn. When we left, we kissed Fox’s grandmother’s cheek, breathing in the smell of talcum and loneliness, and said Thank You for the beads.
In Fox’s El Camino, I looked down at my chest and then over at Sara’s and realized I liked her necklaces more, but it was too late.
Images by the author.
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