Grandma swung in a hammock while complaining about her bad knees, so I told her she was being dramatic. “Bà nội,” I asked, “Do you know how many people in America are homeless?” I didn’t actually know the answer but I just wanted her to make the most out of this life. She was so old that her bun was the size of a cherry and her boobs dangled against her rib cage. One time I found her stash of rumpled bras shoved inside a purse inside a suitcase inside a musty closet. I tried to put one on but there was nothing for the satin cups to support, so I stuffed them with tissues and tied my ankles together with a scrunchy. Then I flopped around on the bed like a beautiful mermaid until my parents came to pick me up.
When grandma asked for my help getting back inside the apartment, I humored her by taking her papery hand. First it was her eyes, now her knees. Sometimes it felt as though I was the one babysitting her instead of the other way around. Last year grandma had surgery because she claimed her eyes were bad. For a week she wore boxy sunglasses that made her look like the Terminator. I taught her how to say “I’ll be back,” which she said over, and over, and over again in her lolling accent because it made me laugh so hard. But after all that she still wasn’t happy. “What good are my eyes now?” sniffled Grandma. “My daughter is gone. My home was destroyed and so were all the places I fell in love. I abandoned my ancestors’ graves. Tell me, what is left to see?”
My friends get it. They have grandmas too. Shoshanna’s grandma was always crying about the numbers tattooed on her arm. Shayna’s grandma was always crying because she never got a chance to learn how to read big books. Sylvia’s grandma always cried while folding tamales, which their family sold from a cart that they pushed around downtown.
“It’s like save the drama for yo mama,” I said, and Shayna giggled. “You mean yo mama’s mama’s mama,” Sylvia said, and then Shoshanna started sobbing. Who knew her grandma just died? We carefully studied Shosh’s face to see if she was crying for real or just being dramatic.
Grandma told me to go take a bath while she made the rice porridge. “Aw man, cháo again?” I exclaimed. She told me it was for her bad stomach, which she blamed on the greasy bucket of fried chicken my parents brought over for dinner last week. The point was my parents thought that spending time with Grandma could help instill some culture in me. For example: “I’ll be back,” I said with a chunky Austrian accent as I retreated from the kitchen, to which Grandma retorted, “Say it in Việt.”
In the bathroom mirror I checked myself for any sign of development and sure enough, I was still flat as a rack. Grandma only had bar soap so there weren’t even any bubbles. I floated underwater for a while anyhow. At first I tried to drown like Grandma’s daughter had when pirates hijacked her boat and took all her possessions including her children, aged two and three, and let the captain live to tell about it. Then I crossed my ankles until my legs fused so that no more babies could be born or killed, and my boobs grew plump, pressing against my seashell bra. In breathless wonder, I kicked up my fin and dove into the depths of the shining sea to see all that I could see.
Notes from Guest Reader James Claffey
This story spoke to me because of the blend of the familial and the uncanny. I loved the imagery and mood Vivien captures in her writing.