I used to sit at her feet, wrapped tightly in one or two of the many afghans that littered her apartment. I remember being particularly fascinated by the ones of looser weave, which she could effortlessly knit in under an hour; I guided my fingers through their dime-sized holes, simulating the growth of new breed of skin toned plant from fertile pink or purple soil. When she caught me doing this I was chastised immediately for causing irreparable harm to an already inferior style of blanket. I pulled my fingers away, feigning amputation, tears flooded my eyes.
When she wasn’t knitting, she rolled cigarettes. While she was an incredibly proficient roller (some might even call it a gift), she had trouble keeping up with the inhuman rate at which she smoked. It was both comical and tragic to watch her sit in her chair surrounded by overflowing, smoldering ashtrays. She alwayshad two cigarettes going at a time, sometimes three or four. Ash clung to her eyelashes like wet snow.
She rarely ate. In hindsight, I think the reason my parents sent me over there so often was to ensure that she had a proper meal at least once a week, for she always did her best to feed me. Our dinner invariably included canned tuna of the canned variety– tuna sandwiches, tuna casserole, tuna salad… As soon as she turned on the electric can opener, cats flooded the kitchen (as she always filled a small dish with the can’t excess juice). The cats, all Toms, rubbed sensually against her hairy shin, vying for attention.
When she ate, it was a spectacle. Her saliva glands, incessantly suffocated by salty, yellow nicotine, lept into action, along with her cats at the sound of metal upon metal which issued from the can openers jaws. Drool flowed like the mighty Ganges itself, slow and repulsive, down the thin, wiry granny whiskers on her chin, hanging there for a moment, threatening to defy gravity, before plunging into whatever tuna concoction happened into her mind that day. I pretended not to notice; I tried to forget, before saying a mandatory prayer and crossing myself and beginning to eat.
There had always been talk of some man in her distant past, some romance and tenderness, which had somehow managed to penetrate the veneer of toughness and smoke that clung to her face like a timeless, fitted mask. I could not believe these stories, though I searched for evidence that might support such outrageous claims. When she locked herself in the bathroom, I walked quickly on the balls of my feet to her bedroom. I opened her bedside drawer in search of yellowed love letters or photographs of this mysterious man; I found none.
Sometimes my parents would go away for an entire weekend, entrusting me to her care. On these occasions, my compulsive search would reach new heights of obsession. Having long given up on her bedroom for clues, I scavenged the kitchen pantry for evidence. I discovered packages of dried dill from the war years, Vanilla, pure as the driven snow, imported from Haiti by God-knows-who and yet, no pictures.
It was in the midst of this obsession in which I discovered a new one. It occurred to me that not only had I never seen a photograph of her with a man (aside from her brothers or father), but I had never seen a photograph of her with any semblance of youth. Even in the oldest black and whites, pictures from my grandparent’s wedding, there she stood, hair in tight curls, smoking a cigarette without even the slightest bit of youthful flourish; she, eternally elderly.
My mother kept a baby book, dedicated to me, which I got to see only on my birthday. In that book were locks of blond, curly infant hair, fastened to the page with scotch tape. I looked at the locks in awe, trying to reconcile it with the mat of coarse, brown hair which had long since replaced it. Every year, my mother faithfully recorded my height and weight, writing them beside my school picture, no matter how bad. I hoped to find a similar testament to the long-forgotten youth of this woman: I found none.
One time, she caught me in my hunt. I had pulled a chair in front of her refrigerator and was on tippy toes, trying to reach the back of the cupboard above, when the kitchen light turned on, instantly blinding me. My heart stopped. “Are you hungry, m’ dear? The tuna is over here.” Which loosely translated into, “Get off that fucking chair and go to bed.” I instinctively put my hands in my armpits and started to sob.
(to be continued)