During my first year of college when I was eighteen, I went to live with my Grama Geri. Grampa Bill had died four years before, and ever since then Grama lived alone in her big four-bedroom ranch-style house, with its vaulted living room ceiling, chandeliered dining room, and golden shag carpeting.
A widow for four years, Grama now had a boyfriend whose name was Bill, just like my Grampa's. He was a multimillionaire, and came from Texas. I liked it when Bill came over, because whenever my Grama left the room, he'd gesture to me, and slip money into my palm. I'd smile with glee and shower him with hugs and pecks on the cheek, and he'd say, "Shhh, don't tell your mother," meaning my grandmother. Now and again he'd slip me a hundred, but usually it was a fresh fifty, or maybe two. This earned him the (secret) nickname, "Fifty-Dollar Bill," which I called him to everyone but my Grama.
He had been married most his life to my Grama Geri's cousin Yvonne. The two couples, Bill and Geri, and Bill and Yvonne, used to hang out drinking martinis on low, angular brown sofas, and lie on the beach in Mexico together. I had seen the snapshots stuffed into gold tone metal frames, diffused with a thin greasy layer of dust, grouped on one wall in Grama's kitchen. If there were other things the four of them did together, it wasn't documented here.
Yvonne had died of throat cancer a few years after Grampa Bill died of emphysema. All four had chain-smoked throughout the '50's and 60's, and Bill and Yvonne kept it up until each died of his or her smoking-related ailment; she in 1988, and Bill about ten years later. Grama tapered down to about three or four a day. Grampa quit when he developed emphysema in the '70's, but it killed him anyway.
All my life Grama had been like a second mother to me. To me, Grama Geri was like a fairy godmother from out of a wonderful tale, where she saves the Princess from her evil Stepmother, played for eighteen years in my case by a benign but bitterly moody mother. My comparatively sparkly and sweet-tempered Grama had cooed and purred over me all my life. Living with her was going to be a piece of cake because I knew I was her Golden Girl; I could do no wrong.
"You can have Grampa's room," Grama said. We went in together. Everything was perfectly tidy and organized, with his giant bed and dresser of dark wood just where they were when he was still alive. The room had a big sliding glass door onto the back yard, where a lovely olive tree Grampa had planted years ago stood on a raised knoll in the grass, surrounded by shrubs. I stood there a moment looking out, and went way back in my mind to summers when I used to visit, before Mom and David and I moved down here to southern California.
When Grampa was alive and healthy, he had grown strawberries all around the olive tree on the knoll. Atop the slope rising to the back neighbor's fence, Grampa had a row of grape vines which sunbathed on the south facing slope. Cappy and Babe, the two parakeets I kept as a young teen until each reached the end of its natural life, were now buried on the top of that slope, wrapped in aluminum foil.
When Grampa was alive, giant stalks of gladiolus stood every summer on the concrete porch, in terra cotta planters the size of Volkswagens; and along the edge of the mass of white and purple daisy ground cover, big coffee cans held stalks of tomato plants twist-tied to wooden stakes. Most of this was gone now, because he was.
Now, surrealistically colorful plastic flower bunches poked perkily out of the dirt of the planters. "It looks so much nicer this way," Grama explained when I asked her about them. "When it was just dirt, it looked so cruddy. She wrinkled her nose at the memory. "Your grandfather," she said breathily, eyes open wide, emphatically pronouncing each word -- "Boy, he was a some gardener." She stood proudly with her fists on her hips, surveying the planters with their nearly fluorescent ersatz contents.
The bedroom smelled musky and sweet, like my Grampa. It was a giant room, with a hallway leading to its own bathroom and walk-in closet. I filled his dresser and closet with my clothes, working around a few things of his which inexplicably remained: Neat stacks of white cotton t-shirts and underwear filed one drawer, and warm flannel long-sleeved shirts hung in the back of the closet -- the type of basic things a man might need, I thought to myself, if he found himself naked and penniless in a coffin, no longer dead, and found his way back home. I also found, leaning against one corner of the closet, a shotgun and two .22 rifles. Horrified at the idea of sharing a room with Grampa's hunting rifles, I made Grama take them away.
Every week Grama changed the sheets, making the bed for me the same way she made it for him, with an extra fold down at the feet for roominess. She opened my drapes in the morning, and closed them at night. She came in and cleaned the bathroom while I was at my junior college classes, and made us steak or roast ham or pork chops for dinner. Grama always had a glass or two of scotch while cooking dinner, just like when I used to stay over summers when I was a little girl. Grama had a couple of vices, but her vices were always very controlled: no more than four cigarettes a day, and a glass or two of scotch before dinner. Both were enjoyed with a kind of ritualistic discipline. These were balanced with the burden of always having to put her hair up in curlers every night before bed, which she did in the family room in front of the TV; and after which she would spend about ten minutes doing her "face exercises." Her last cigarette of the day was always in bed listening to AM radio, and I always worried that she'd set the bed on fire, and the whole house would go up. At least I had my big sliding glass door out which to escape.
Grama Geri, Mom's mother, had stepped in to help after Mom and Dad divorced, buying most of the clothes for us kids, and paying for our private educations. This had continued on well after we were all quite equipped to support ourselves, and it made life much nicer. Grama bought David a computer when he graduated from high school, and to be fair she gave me the cash equivalent, which I used to buy my first car. Whenever I needed gas money and Mom couldn't afford to help out, I could always call Grama for five or ten dollars. Calls to Grama reached extraordinary volume during my seventeenth year. She rarely told me No.
My first month or two living at Grama's was so luxurious. The house was large and quiet and I could do what I liked. She had a library of books including many literary classics, which I pilfered and read. She cooked all the meals I would let her. When I came home from my classes, I would sit in the black velvet chair in my room and read for hours. Grama would interrupt me on an hourly basis, popping in without knocking to check whether I needed anything, had enough light, and was warm enough.
"My precious love. Can you see what you're reading? Don't you want more light? Can I get you anything to eat? Don't you want to come into the family room?"
"Nope," I answered with increasing impatience. She asked me the same questions over and over.
"Hm," she said, looking down at me. She walked slowly back to the door and, touching the doorknob, looked back at me reading under the swing-arm lamp on the drafting table she had bought me. Sensing her still standing there, I raised my eyes to hers briefly. "Would you mind shutting the door?"
She chuckled, and stepped out, pulling the door behind her to about a ten inch gap, then walking away. Heaving a sigh, I plopped the book down open on the drafting table and charged over to the door, shutting it the rest of the way.
Often when we were eating breakfast at the kitchen table, I would read the newspaper, relishing the pleasure of both activities. Grama would always start conversations about the headlines while I was trying to read, and I would ignore her as long as I could before raising my eyes from the paper in frustration, sighing.
"These Mexicans," she said sharply, drawing out the "m" several seconds, "they just can't seem to stay in their own country."
I had been to Tijuana and I could understand why residents of northern Mexico, at least, would rather be here. Besides, much of the population of Southern California was Hispanic. A few of my boyfriends had either been born in Mexico, or were first generation Americans.
"They come here, and they don't even learn English," she muttered, continuing. I had seen the newsletters from Republican senators on her office desk, and knew she was a supporter of the English as the Official Language movement.
Over the last few months I had begun thinking what a bigoted racist she was. She had even philosophized to me over dinner once that black people weren't as smart as white people. Over my horrified objections, she explained that the lighter their skin was, generally the smarter they were. We argued over her stereotypes about people of every race and creed. She hated most of her neighbors, from the fat French Canadian to the family of the skinny Jewish girl I used to play with during the summer. She criticized most of my friends, as well; she didn't even like my other grandparents, and ridiculed them to me. I decided the only people in the world she liked were her own flesh and blood; and my Mom would contend that even that was pushing it.
That first year in junior college I met my friend Tony. We were both graphic design students, and shared an obsession with Depeche Mode and alternative music. We'd go shopping together at night on Melrose Avenue, buying studded bracelets and black pointy-toed boots. These types of accessories were about as far as I had yet gone into Death Rock, as it was called; but I was deeply intrigued by the mysterious, cool fashion, razored haircuts, and creepy, dark music. Tony was bolder and cut his curly black hair into a short mohawk, and often wore bondage pants strung with straps and buckles, black army boots, and black eyeliner.
I felt that the main thing keeping my look too mainstream was my long, layered, wavy golden blonde hair. Tony and I talked about it a lot. He thought my hair was beautiful, even as "normal" as it was, and didn't think I should cut it. Everyone always commented on how beautiful my hair was, and I had long feared that whatever beauty I had was contained in those golden strands, and without them I might not be beautiful. Even Grama Geri used to stroke my hair, cooing, "My beautiful Granddaughter," as I squirmed embarrassedly; she had done it all my life. Increasingly, though, I didn't care if I was "beautiful" -- what I really wanted was to be exciting, exotic, extraordinary, special. I loved how Aimee Mann of the band 'Til Tuesday looked, with her puff of droopy white-blonde spikes, and yard-long braided tail. After finally winning Tony's support, I decided that was what I'd do. My hair wasn't long enough for a tail of that length, but I figured I could pull off twelve inches or so.
I made an appointment at an expensive, progressive salon in Los Angeles for one Thursday afternoon. Tony and I had a date to meet at his place at noon to drive to L.A. together. I wouldn't have to be out of bed until ten or so, and tended to sleep late anyway. So when an earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter Scale hit around seven forty-five that morning, I was completely dead to the world.
I suddenly found myself sitting up in bed, yelling, "Grama! Grama! Graaa-ma!" The bed shook and the sliding glass door was making horrifying squeaking, creaking noises. I looked over and saw that the reflections on the surface of the glass door were pulsing and bulging as the glass twisted in its aluminum frame. Frozen in place and hyperventilating, I shouted again, just as Grama Geri came bounding into the room. She rushed to the bed and hugged me tight, and I squeezed my face into her cold-cream-scented neck until the shaking and noises subsided back into peaceful early morning sunshine. We let go of each other, and for a minute I sat there looking at her, realizing that with no concern for herself, she had run into my room because I was calling for her.
"Thank you for coming when I called you," I said, still shaken.
"Well, of course, Sweetheart," she replied with a surprised frown. "I would always come if you called for me." I hugged her again, and got out of bed for an early breakfast.
Tony and I went to the salon in L.A. and I got the haircut I wanted: bleached white-blonde, short and slightly spiky, coming to a neatly-shorn "V" in the back. Below that, a slender braid several inches long began, coming down over one shoulder and ending past my collar bone in an invisible rubber band. I didn't feel insecure or ugly like I had feared, in the least. I felt edgy, mysterious, and sexy. Tony was instantly in love with it. On the way home we stopped by the mall in Thousand Oaks to pick up a leather motorcycle jacket I had ordered. Flinging it over one shoulder, I walked back through the mall with Tony. I was tingling from head to toe with excitement over my new look. Someone called to me, "Aimee Man!", and I turned to look with a huge grin on my face.
I walked into the house and went straight into my room.
"Hi Sweetheart," Grama Geri called after me, "What do you want for dinner?"
"Nothing," I yelled from my room.
"What? You have to eat something." I could hear her voice approaching.
"I ate with Tony, I'm fine," I insisted, hoping to satisfy her. But she was coming down the hall now.
She walked into my room. I was in the walk-in closet, digging for clothes cool enough to go with my new haircut. She came over to the closet and looked at me. I stopped rearranging hangers, and looked back at her. We stood there for a minute.
I thought, if she isn't screeching at me, maybe she likes the haircut. She inhaled slowly.
"Oy," she finally sighed, and she turned and walked out.