“Sorry, doll. I was just finishing my program.”
My grandmother snaps off her TV set, which has been blaring “Let’s Make a Deal” at a volume for which hearing aids are not required. We’ve assumed our usual places in the set piece of her rent-controlled apartment, Grandmom curled into the pale blue La-Z-Boy my uncles bought her after her bypass, me perched on the 40-year-old, butt-punched couch cushions with the velveteen flowers I used to flick my fingertips across for the softness. The dusty olive carpet spools out between us, a sea of thumbprint-like whorls.
This is the good part. Grandmom has just tilted her wide, freckled face my way. The TV has swirled down to a single, colored dot behind her head and her hazel eyes go big and bright as headlights trained on me behind glasses printed with the afterimage of her thumbs; I’ve just arrived here in her living room and I have not yet told my grandmother that she is dead.
But it’s coming. That part’s as sure a thing as my next breath. My grandmother died before I was ready, this is my recurring dream, and this is the rule: I don’t get to see her face for more than a minute before I have to break the spell of reunion. It’s a bittersweet proximity, this teasing glance in which we are near enough to graze the soft fuzz of each other’s cheeks, but we cannot touch.
Grandmom leans forward, as if to pull the lever at the side of her chair, as if to launch her little, hunched body into the kitchen to find me food. I know there’s nothing in the fridge but a half tub of sour cream (full fat, even though she shouldn’t) and a blood-purple bottle of Manischewitz borscht. I know there’s a tin of mandelbrot she keeps specifically for me next to the containers marked Flour and Sugar.
This is a woman who woke from a coma when she heard me, standing by her hospital bed, utter the words “I’m hungry.” She could almost pull it off. Waking from the dead.
But I know she won’t make it into her Sav-On velour slippers. Before the dot on the TV has vaporized with its static hiss, a compulsion to enforce the rules of mortality will force my lips apart and I will kill the instant with The Truth. Every encounter I’ve had with Grandmom in the past 20 years proves my tenacity: I just can’t help myself.
Well, fuck that.
Grandmom and I are together in her apartment, and this time, I am going to make her stay.
My therapist, Madeleine, says that all the characters in my dreams are me. “But you’re a Jungian. You’re supposed to believe that the supernatural is true,” I counter her, poking a finger toward her shelf of dragon and princess figurines. Madeleine creaks back in her black Eames chair; she’s used to my teasing, even when it’s not teasing. She points out that, even in dreams, the dead eventually grow disinterested; they get tired of hanging out with the living. She’s worried about my sad obsession with my grandmother — concern whiskers the corners of her eyes. She says that confronting a loved one to tell her she has died is an ancient motif — as old as the worm that Gilgamesh saw drop out of Enkidu’s nose — but it’s a figment of early grief. She thinks I should be past this stage by now.
“Remember Lars,” she urges.
This is what comes of telling someone else your dreams.
Lars was the photographer who shared studio space with me for five years when I was painting 10-foot-tall still lifes of oranges and lemons, Lars pinning up glossy black-and-whites of himself, alone, at the peak of every mountaintop on earth. He was the first working artist I knew, the person who made me feel like I was doing something real. When Lars went home to his parents’ house and hanged himself from the shower head in the guest bathroom, I curled up with my sleeping toddler, with his flushed cheeks and oranges-and-lemons pajama suit, and dreamed that I saw Lars retreating into a little house across a Japanese bridge and shutting the small red door. “I’m sorry you died!” I cried. Lars didn’t say anything, but as he pulled the door shut, he nodded sadly, his face scruffed with the crust of his beard, as if he were sorry, too, but it was the way it had to be.
Sometimes a bald, Norwegian face with a blunt nose and bright eyes still shocks me, but in that dream Lars and I had said goodbye.
Madeleine marvels that Grandmom and I have kept our routine up so long. “My grandmother isn’t the same as Lars,” I pick at the couch in protest. Lars and I had shared the same space, but you couldn’t even really say we’d been friends. I’d admired him as an artist; you could even say that I’d needed him as a role model, but it wasn’t the same thing. Madeleine cradled a tiny still life of mine, a plate of olives knifed coal black against a little board in her hand; after Lars, I had become a miniaturist. She is not the type to accept denial.
“What are you holding onto? What part of you needs to remain a child?”
Holding onto? I’d gotten married, hadn’t I? I’d had a child of my own. I’d become responsible for nothing less than the grueling, crumb-strewn marathon of another human life. “I just want a little more time. Is that so much to ask?”
Sitting in my grandmother’s apartment — A rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica! That alone is worth staying on my grandmother’s couch for another 20 years! — it occurs to me that if I can get Grandmom hooked on something else, she won’t get out of her chair, and if she doesn’t get out of her chair, I won’t have to open my mouth, and if I don’t open my mouth, I can sit with her in her apartment and hear her breathe, and I won’t have to say goodbye to her again. My eyes dart from her freckles to the candy dish filled with Nips, then back to the guttering TV.
On Hulu, I remember, all the seasons of “The Amazing Race” are free.
Grandmom has never seen this show: Twelve teams, seven continents, a race around the world. It’s so addictive. Better than I could have hoped. Grandmom and I have made it to Season 17, the one with Nat and Kat — the slim, smiling young doctors who want to be the first female team to win the million-dollar prize. Nat is diabetic and terrified of heights; she has great breasts. Kat is a 15-year vegetarian. When they make it to a Fast Forward, the part where they can surge ahead of all the other teams if they eat an entire goat’s head roasted on a platter, Kat scoops the greasy eyeballs up in her fingers and smacks her lips: “Tastes like money!” It’s impossible not to root for these girls, even if they’re not a couple, because they make it look so easy. Even when Nat is on the gondola up the Alps, tears streaming down her dewy face, her frown, over her huge white teeth, looks like a brilliant smile.
Reality TV didn’t exist when Grandmom was alive, unless you count “The Price Is Right.” We have traveled more countries in the last three hours than my grandmother ever visited in her life. Grandmom stays glued to her seat while I root through her kitchen for the tin of cookies. During the Hong Kong leg, we gobble all the mandel. Mandel bits pebble the couch. I knew that she would love this show, I congratulate myself. Maybe I’ll sleep through my own life. Maybe when I wake up from this dream, my little son will be a man.
“You used to have to wait for TV, you know,” Grandmom raises two plucked eyebrows while I click forward to the next episode. Wait for TV? In reality, Grandmom doesn’t know a thing about Hulu instant video. In this world, though, she has a thing or two to teach me.
When Nat and Kat win the million dollars, Grandmom makes me promise that we will not get hooked on another season of “The Amazing Race.” “Do you know how terrified Nat was to fall off the top of that shipping crane?” At first I think she’s just being coy, but when I realize she’s serious, I start to panic. Grandmom tilts forward in her chair, just like Nat, dangling hundreds of feet above the Port of Long Beach by a rubber bungee cord. Except Grandmom has no bungee cord. She’s just gripping a scrunched tissue she’s pulled out of her sleeve; her curled hand presses her heart next to the scar. I’m afraid that she’s going to keel over on the floor in front of me, that the universe is about to slap me for keeping her pinned here to the earth with reality TV.
Grandmom waves off another season: “I don’t want to get inveigled!” And then she pulls on her velour slippers.
In a moment, she’s at the door of her apartment, the one labeled with the same letter as my name, decorated with the construction paper rainbow I colored and cut out in second grade, warped but still scotch-taped to the inside of the door. I haven’t heard any knock, but Grandmom peeps through the hole, opens the door and welcomes a great wave of talcum powder and Chanel No. 5. I recognize my Great-Aunt Carol, known for good reason as Kix. Aunt Kix, who was eight years younger than my Grandmom but outlived her by almost 20 years, died two days ago. She would have been 100 on her next birthday to my Grandmom’s meager 85. The Last of the Mohicans, Aunt Kix, and she’s got somewhere to go. Kitted out in a fox stole and high heels, her hair set like a golden bubble and her cheeks freshly powdered, Aunt Kix doesn’t say anything, and neither do I. I hadn’t realized Grandmom and I were waiting for someone. I thought we were just hanging out. I thought I was the reason Grandmom was still here.
Grandmom is already in the bathroom she stocks with rose-colored toilet paper. She’s changed into a lilac blouse and she’s spraying her hair with AquaNet, teasing it up. Aunt Kix shifts in her sleek coat, her Italian shoes, impatient to get going. Aunt Kix lived across the country. She only came to visit Grandmom once a year, and when she came to visit, she ferried Grandmom out for their annual gambling excursion, Aunt Kix to play blackjack and Grandmom to hit the slots. They’re about to hop a bus to Vegas. Time to leave the kids behind.
“Grandmom —” my throat hurts. That old compulsion strikes the way I guess it must, and my voice splits, reedy with regret. What would Madeleine say now? I thought I’d found a clever way around this ending, and yet we’re barreling toward the moment that always leaves me smeared and choking on my pillow.
Grandmom has already fished her teeth out of the Fleishman’s margarine tub where they bob between us in a fizzing sea of EfferDent. Her wicker purse is looped over her arm, the basket-like thing with Atlantic City painted around the edges and a lucky penny glued to the top, and she’s heading for the door. “Grandmom — ” I sputter. Please don’t leave me here alone.
“Lock up when you’re done,” Grandmom blows me a kiss; her false teeth click. Grandmom, wait! Already they’re out the door, clacking in their square heels down the stairs. Even in sleep, I can feel the words claw at my throat, the flood of tears leaking past the frail wings of my closed eyelashes. I want to tell her I love her. I want to tell her I miss her. It’s my job to tell her that she’s left this world. But Grandmom and Aunt Kix are light years ahead of me. Ashy diesel fumes wash in on the cool, salt air off Ocean Avenue; the perfumes and powders of their century dissolve. By the time I pull it together to cry out “Grandmom, you died!” the two of them are gone.
Hilary A. Zaid is an alumna of the 2013 Tin House Writers Workshop and is the James D. Houston Scholar at the 2012 Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her fiction has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and is forthcoming in Bloom and Prick of the Spindle.