We Can Survive Anything
Another time she told me to always flaunt my body amongst men. It wasn’t so I would get their attention, but to show them how weak they really are. The fact that she at seventy-eight still wore stockings and suspender belts became quite disturbing after that.
My grandma would sit in her house in Reading – a little over an hour’s drive from London – and complain about politics while reminiscing about what she called her own ‘lost youth’. She used to sit there with curlers in her hair, wearing a white night gown and sucking on the sixth Marlboro Gold of the hour. From the moment my grandma learned about Pussy Riot she realised her own past in protesting during the student protests in the 60s was to be considered as amateurish. She said it was because she admired their determination and fierceness but we all knew it was because she herself kept her clothes on and didn’t get arrested.
Despite her unconventional ways she was the best person in the world. At least in my world. She never raised her voice at me and took my side regarding everything. She spoiled my dad any chance she got. She would do things such as waking him up with an egg and bacon sandwich every morning if he stayed over and always made sure they had his favourite biscuits laying around in case he decided to pop by. “You can never spoil someone with too much love,” she used to say. My mother hated it of course, but then again she has always been uptight.
Beside my mother, grandma had the ability to convince everyone she met that she was a woman they adored. Even though she had been served a handful too much crazy, people seemed to laugh at her inappropriate jokes and relax in her presence. I noticed a long time ago the change in people’s faces when they talked to her. It might have been the charismatic smile or the enthusiastic eyes, all I know is that it looked as if the person’s worries became pleasures whenever they interacted with her. She was one of those people who, it’s a cliché I know, but who instantly lit up a room when she entered it. Once quite literally when she showed up to a Christmas party more decorated than the Christmas tree.
Over a year had passed since she died. She had a heart attack out of the blue while she was sleeping. There had been no indications and thankfully no long battle towards a shallowly dug grave. The doctors said she died quickly. Even though I’m sure she would have wanted a more spectacular death, quick and sudden suited her. “Just like our sex life” she would have described it herself. Afterwards she would have looked at my grandpa from the corner of her eye and clenched her teeth together into an insane smile.
The echoes of the praise spoken about her in her funeral still stay with me. Of course I’m not blind, so admittedly I know my grandma wasn’t loved by everyone. Grandma used to say that if someone doesn’t like someone it’s because they don’t understand them, or other times because they are simply too different. “Let the foolish do their mistakes and you do yours. In the end they are both mistakes,” was something she used to say whenever she caught someone maligning other people.
People like my mother who value titles more than personality, would categorise grandma as ‘too much’. They are the kind of people who are used to getting their ass kissed so much they can’t sit down. Amongst my mother and her friends, grandma was a sore subject. Somehow my dad had managed to charm his way into my mother’s life. He had showed off his intelligence with sophisticated jokes and played on my mother’s weakness for confident, tall men with big bright smiles. After growing up with my mother as a mum I could testify to how big of an accomplishment that was. Even bigger considering he came from a family so much more down to earth than her own, one would need binoculars to see each other.
Last time I saw grandfather and my grandmother Cynthia, who I wasn’t allowed to call grandmother because of how it made her feel, they told me how deeply disappointed they were because I didn’t get in to Oxford University. I told them how disappointed I was in them as grandparents and walked away. I haven’t talked to them since.
When I grew up, grandma and I used to practice different alibi stories in case either of us needed one one day. We had categorised them into days and months. If it was a Sunday in September, we would have spent the day picking apples from my grandparents’s garden and made apple pies the rest of the day. If it was a Wednesday in February, we had spent the day painting each other’s portraits. Grandma even bought two canvases and some paint and painted two very different and very bad portraits to complete the alibi.
I’ve never had use for the well-crafted alibi stories we came up with until a Friday last November. If grandma had still been a live I could have said I was out Christmas shopping with her followed by a movie night. Reality was that I was assaulting my ex-boyfriend with a course book.
We were together for five months, and I thought I loved him. He had met my family and it saddened me that he never got to meet grandma. First of all because they would’ve liked each other, but in retrospect also because she would have dealt with him if she knew what he did.
I broke up with him the night before. He took it worse than I had thought and he got very upset. I didn’t know what to do other than to go back to my own room and hope he would spend the night calming down. He did not. Instead he spent the night uploading all the intimate pictures I had sent him online for the whole world to see.
I woke up that Friday morning to a phone bombarded with texts from my friends. When I pressed the link and saw those pictures of myself up on the world wide web I froze. I was a victim of revenge porn and I did not know what to do.
The embarrassment of people having seen me naked was unbearable. All I wanted to do was escape, but more importantly I wanted those pictures gone. I remember thinking grandma would’ve known exactly what to do in that situation. However, that just made everything seem even more hopeless. At one point I wasn’t sure I wanted to live anymore. In those kind of situations, the logic that goes through your brain isn’t always logical. To hang myself from the ceiling or slit my wrists and bleed out on the floor seemed like a better solution than to go outside and face people. I was in fact a victim. I just couldn’t own up to being one outside of my room.
Somehow the hopelessness of the situation grew into anger and hatred towards the person responsible for my pain. Instead of wanting to kill myself I wanted to kill my ex-boyfriend. I barged into his room and started to beat him over the head with a course book.
When the blood from the rift over his left eye splatted back on me I finally realised what I was doing. I threw the book on the floor and ran away while he was screaming all kinds of b-words at me. I packed an overnight bag consisting of whatever I found on the floor of my room, got into my red Polo and started driving. I didn’t know where to go at first but I quickly realised I needed to go somewhere I felt safe. The only place I could think of was grandma and grandpa’s house in Reading. I knew grandpa would be home and I knew it was a place where I could get away from everything.
My grandparents had lived in Reading as long as I can remember. Their house was located in the Woodley area and even though it wasn’t the grandest of houses it was more than big enough for the two of them. The most important part was never the size of the house, but their back yard. They adored working together in the garden trying to grow their own vegetables and fruits and later using the produce in their cooking. I guess your hobbies and your priorities are some of the things that change when you become old. Grandpa apparently never stepped foot inside the kitchen before after he retired. That was when he realised how much he enjoyed spending time with grandma and he never looked back. I used to say that grandma and grandpa’s marriage post retirement was one to look up to.
I mainly went to Reading that day because it was the place I felt closest to grandma. However, I knew it was the love and company of grandpa I would get. That was also what I needed. Grandpa has kind of always been there for me. During the weekends I spent alone with them as a kid he was always the one who would read me bedtime stories. The way he tells his stories make you feel like the characters he’s illustrating to you. It has become a bit repetitive the last few years but I still love listening to his stories. Grandpa was also the one who at one point got me interested in dinosaurs. I used to be the geeky seven-year-old who knew all the names of all the different dinosaurs and for over a year dinosaurs were all I drew. The day grandpa took me to the Natural History Museum stands out as one of those perfect days you remember clearly, but at the same time not, because all you remember is being so happy you never wanted the day to end.
What usually happen happened. I grew up and boys, make-up, clothes and Britney Spears became more important than old grandfathers. For my thirteenth birthday he said he had a surprise gift for me. The year before we had been studying World War II and he was so proud when he handed me the plane tickets to Poland to visit Auschwitz. I acted like the ungrateful brat I was and threw the tickets on the floor. Afterwards I uttered with complete teenage despair that he could have bought concert tickets for the money he wasted. That was the moment I saw my own innocence die in grandpa’s eyes. At that time I loved it. It made me feel rebellious and grown-up.
After that my relationship with both grandpa and grandma halted. I got a huge case of rebellion fever and my schedule consisted of hiding behind corners to puff menthol cigarettes and doing bad in school on purpose. There was no time for old grandparents.
However, there comes a time where you start valuing the comfort of grandparents again. Considering it felt like hugging rocks every time I forced myself to lean in and grip my mother’s parents, I only had one place to go to. One rainy day a month after my seventeenth birthday my first real boyfriend broke up with me. I was hurt and spent the day inside scrutinized the Internet for anything interesting. I found myself reading a news article about a new dinosaur discovery and felt an urge to call grandpa. I called him and we talked for over an hour on the phone. He didn’t ask why I suddenly called or if something was wrong, he just talked and that was exactly what I needed. I think he needed it too, because his voice wouldn’t stop making the sound a voice makes when spoken through a smile.
I imagined grandpa sitting in his chair while reading the newspaper with a cup of tea damping away on the table. His glasses would hug the tip of his nose like an embrace between distant friends and since grandma wasn’t there to remind him anymore he would most likely let his tea go cold. I smiled just by the thought of how happy he would be to see me. And as I turned onto the M4 I felt a feeling of relief surrender my mind. Maybe everything would be okay after all?
I drove off the highway and passed the store I once stole a candy bar from at age three. I don’t remember it, but grandma used to tell the story about how we went inside again and pretended to have found it on the ground outside. We said someone obviously must have lost it and that they might come back for it. The sales clerked thanked us for our honesty and said most people would’ve just taken it, to which my grandma responded “well, we’re not like most people I suppose.” The story always cracked her up. Even though I never really understood the joke, I always laughed with her and said “no wonder why I struggle with rights and wrongs.”
Next up was the streak of road where I spent a weekend learning how to cycle the year I turned six. Grandma wore a canary yellow jumper and put tiny pony tails on each side of her head so I would stare straight at her and nothing else. Of course the first four rounds all I could do was laugh. I laughed so hard I cried, which again ended with me falling over with the bike. I still have a tiny scar on the left side of my right knee. Grandma called it a symbol of all her failures. To me it symbolises how easily she made tears go away.
I pulled up next to grandpa’s car in the driveway. My parents bought grandma and grandpa a Prius as a wedding anniversary gift a few years back. After watching a documentary about global warming grandma hid the car keys to their old Volvo. She spent a month almost killing herself by bicycling all over Reading to do errands. Dad was concerned for her well-being and together with grandpa they convinced her to accept the gift. Her only demand was that we as a family started to eat less meat. We all promised her we would change. I think we lasted for about a month before we stuffed our faces with bacon again.
I turned off the engine and took a breather. I knew grandpa would have heard me drive up and would come out the wooden front door any minute. I spent that minute just staring at the house. Grandma and grandpa’s house, which now was called grandpa’s house, stared back at me with a sense of promise of help, like it always did.
Grandpa opened the door and looked right at me. It had been a year, but a part of me still expected grandma to pop out behind him with one hand on her hip and a big smile on her face.
Grandpa had his reading glasses in one hand and a newspaper tucked under the arm while using the other one to hold the door open. Grandpa was skinny for an old man, but didn’t look sick or anything. In fact, he looked very good for his age. His hair was combed back gently and he added just a tiny bit of gel to make it stay that way. It had the same colour as the thick London fog and it was straight out beautiful.
The smile on his face as soon as he realised it was me could’ve warmed even the coldest of hearts. He let the newspaper fall to the ground and stretched out his arms awaiting a big hug. I unbuckled my seat belt so fast the buckle hit me in the face but it didn’t stop me. I ran out of the car and into my grandpa’s arms.
I never truly got used to saying “grandpa’s house” instead of “grandma and grandpa’s house.” The words didn’t feel right in my mouth. It was like taking a tequila shot without the lemon wedge after to make it complete. That day was the first time I walked through the door without feeling her presence. A couple of months back I caught grandpa splashing her Victoria’s Secret body spray around the house, but that day all I smelled was peppermint tea and ‘Old Spice’.
Grandma had bought the body spray two years ago when we went shopping in London together. It was called Love Spell and smelled like cherry blossoms and peaches. She said it smelled like youth and that it was exactly what she and grandpa needed. I didn’t ask why in fear of the answer I might get. At the same time I didn’t need to because I already knew what cherry blossoms meant to them, I had known that since I was five.
As a five-year-old I spent many weekends alone at my grandparents’s house. One day when I was colouring in my princess colouring book at the living room table I asked grandma how grandpa proposed to her. I had probably heard the term in one of the Disney movies I watched on repeat. Grandpa was out golfing and grandma sat across the room in her Stressless doing the Sunday crosswords with one hand and holding her cigarette in the other. When I asked she looked up at me and smiled. She put down her pen, put out her cigarette and clapped her hand gently on her lap as in a “come over here.” I put my pencil down and sauntered over to her. She put her hands around me and through a big smile she said:
“It was absolutely perfect, but don’t tell your grandpa I said that. I sometimes need to remind him of the fact that he didn’t have a ring ready yet.”
Then she winked.
Grandpa and her had been going out for just short of six months. Grandma wanted to visit a newly opened exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery and on their way to the tube station they walked through Regent’s Park. It was early spring, but the cherry trees were already blossoming. Grandma said she got the urge to climb one of them. Grandpa told her she couldn’t and that she probably wasn’t able to. She took the challenge and after completing the task she looked down on grandpa and he was just standing there with a goofy smile on his face.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Will you marry me?” he asked back.
After that first time so many years ago I probably begged them both to tell me the story a hundred times. It was the only love story I liked listening to.
“This is a nice surprise!” grandpa said while he helped me take off my jacket.
“Oh you know, I just felt like getting out of the city.” I turned around and smiled, hoping he wouldn’t detect the underlying panic in my voice. I tried to not think about the pictures, but the number of people who had seen them and downloaded them on their computers and smartphones haunted my mind.
As I suspected grandpa had a cold cup of tea sitting patiently and waiting for him on the tiny round table next to his Stressless. The table’s only function was to be a place for grandpa to put his tea and his glasses. It was an identical table located next to the Stressless grandma used to sit in. While grandpa took his tea into the kitchen to make two new cups I sat down in grandma’s chair.
The silence that followed after he came back with the cups and sat down in his own chair probably set off some alarm bells. As I stirred the tea fifteen seconds longer than necessary while staring right through the cup, I felt grandpa’s concerned look hit me.
I snapped out of it and tried to act normal by engage him in some small talk.
“So, how are you doing these days? Have you been out golfing a lot?” I asked.
He took a sip of his tea and leaned back in his chair before he answered. It enhanced the terrible feeling I had that he knew something was up.
“Oh, I’ve been fine. I’ve been doing some work in the garden lately, so I haven’t been golfing as much as I should. I need to finish rebuilding the flowerbeds and plant the tree before the frost comes so I’ve focused on that.”
A few weeks before a storm knocked over the apple tree in the back yard. It crushed the homemade flowerbeds grandma and grandpa built together. Grandpa cherished those flowerbeds very much and I was ashamed of the fact that I had forgotten about them.
“Oh yes, of course. How’s it coming along? Anything I can do to help?”
Grandpa started to answer the question and I tried to sound as interested as I could. The truth was that I didn’t care much about gardening and my mind had already managed to travel back to the increasing number of people who had seen me naked.
I realised I had spaced out and put my feet up in the chair and turned towards grandpa in an attempt to look less uninterested than my behaviour expressed.
The conversation died again after he explained to me why he chose to buy his material online. Apparently it was cheaper and you could get it coated for a small fee. I told him it sounded like a good idea and then the silence came.
The shame and embarrassment started to bubble up from under my ribcage. Simultaneously a panic attack got ready to penetrate through my skin in form of sweat drops the size of pennies. As a consequence my right foot started to shake. In an attempt to hide it I sat up and picked up a magazine from the magazine holder standing next to grandma’s chair. As I lifted it up, a pair of glasses fell out from between the pages. I leaned over and picked them up. When grandpa saw what it was he started to laugh. The laugh sounded like it came from deep inside him and it made my foot stop shaking.
“What’s so funny?” I asked puzzled.
He shook his head and tried his best to speak.
“She…ha ha ha..hated those! She said it made her feel old and ugly.”
He sat up a bit and took a sip of his tea to gather himself before he continued.
“I nagged her about using those when she was reading! She would squeeze her eyes together and then complain about headaches afterwards so I told her to go see an optician. She was reluctant I’ll tell you, but she went in the end. However, she never got used to see herself with the glasses on so she refused to wear them. I told her she looked intellectual and not old or ugly at all, but your grandma was very proud of her eyesight. She got so mad at me one day, telling me I should’ve married a professor if I was so into intellectual women.”
He paused in order to chuckle.
“Well, I never saw them after that. I never asked about them either, but apparently she used them behind my back. Oh my that woman was stubborn.”
We fell into silence again, both with our own smile caused by grandpa’s memory. I imagined grandma only reading comfortable when grandpa was out of the house because she didn’t want to admit he was right. She really was stubborn.
“Are all of her things still her?” I asked after a while. The tone sounded more dreadful than I had planned.
“Well, yes,” he said. “I haven’t really touched anything since you and your parents helped me clean the house for the wake.”
My heart sunk. That was over a year ago. I wasn’t sure what kind of answer I wanted. I dreaded the day I wouldn’t find any sign of her ever living there. However, realising grandpa had to look at grandma’s clothes every time he had to decide what to wear himself, made me feel sorry for him. Then it dawned on me that neither my parents or I had offered to help doing something that obviously would set some emotions in swing. Then I felt even more sorry for him, but also ashamed.
“If you want to, I can help you do that. It wouldn’t take that long would it? And then we could drive over to that vintage shop on Watlington Street grandma used to shop at and donate the useful stuff.”
I realised I’d sounded a little bit too excited. So I added a “but only if you want to of course” at the end.
My enthusiasm seemed to charm him. He looked at me like one look at a playing puppy and said:
“It sounds good to me. When do you want to start?”
I really needed any excuse to get my mind off of the naked pictures of me circling the Internet so that time I couldn’t control my eagerness.
“Well, why can’t we start immediately? Then we’ll finish by supper.”
He nodded and I silently ‘yeeeyed’.
I hadn’t been into their bedroom since the day grandma died. Before we could get there they had already taken her away. The concept of death had always scared me and dead bodies or anything around it grossed me out. I couldn’t imagine the fear grandpa must have experienced when he woke up and found her cold dead body next to him. Before she died I would never even consider going into the room where she was found and definitely not lying down in the bed where she actually passed away. But that was exactly what happened that day. After hours of uncontrollable crying the only thing that helped was crawling into grandma’s side of the bed. I think I fell asleep immediately.
It was news to me that grandma had that much clothes but it wasn’t a big shock. We used to shop together all the time and she wore all kinds of clothes. She had everything from luxurious fur coats to pink spandex tights. The crazy part was that I’d seen her wearing them together. When I saw the amount of things we would be carrying out in boxes I realise that cleaning grandma out of the house would leave a pretty big physical hole in grandpa’s life in addition to the hole she’d already left.
While I was debating where to start, grandpa came in carrying a handful of folded cardboard boxes and tape. He suggested we start with the shoes.
I went down on my knees to drag out the probably hundred pair of shoes hiding under grandma’s jackets, dresses and a couple of grandpa’s old jackets and suits. We found the pair, wrapped them together in paper and placed them in a box marked ‘Shoes.’ Some of the shoes were too old and too worn out to give away. We both looked at all the pairs, and if we thought they were no use to anyone we put them away in a black plastic bag assigned for trash.
In between the shoe inspections grandpa found time to ask about uni, my friends, my parents and Liam, my scumbag of an ex-boyfriend. I answered short, but covered my bases. I didn’t want to tell him that we were broken up. I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep it together if I did. In the end I think grandpa sensed I wasn’t so interested in taking about it, because after the third vague answer in a row he changed the subject back to what we were doing.
After we finished the shoes (it was thirty-six pairs!), I went into the dress and jacket jungle and lifted as much as I could off the rack at the same time. In the process one of grandpa’s old sports jackets fell down. I placed the armful of clothes on the bed leaving grandpa to remove all the hangers while I kneeled down to clean up the mess I had made. When I was about to pick up the jacket I saw something shiny sticking out of its pocket. I pulled it out and a diamond bracelet appeared.
Ever since I was a little kid I’d admired grandma’s jewellery collection. It wasn’t particularly big, just a few rings and necklaces grandpa had given her as anniversary gifts through the years. There were only two bracelets and I knew this wasn’t one of them.
I turned around with the bracelet in hand and asked:
Grandpa was folding one of grandma’s winter coats and placed it in an empty box before he turned around too. When he saw what I was holding in my hand his face turned twenty years younger.
“It’s a bracelet,” he said.
“But I’ve never seen grandma wear it,” I said with just enough hint of scepticism in my voice.
“That’s because it didn’t belong to your grandmother,” he replied.
“Well who did it belong to?”
“It belonged to a woman called Elvira. Elvira Marie von Blachteinbourgh.”
I wasn’t sure what to think. My perception of my grandpa had been nothing but honourable my whole life, but as my thoughts started to elope the bracelet I was holding started to eat itself into my hand.
“And who the fuck is that grandpa?”
I don’t know if he had heard me swear before, but his face told me he understood where my mind had gone.
“Oh no, no, no sweetheart. Now let me explain.”
“Explain what exactly?” I asked firmly.
“It’s not what you think, love, this was before I ever met your grandma,” he answered while smiling kindly.
He sat down on the bed and gestured for me to sit down next to him. Instead I sat down on the floor with my back up against the wardrobe. It wasn’t comfortable, but a part of me felt this burning knot inside my chest and I didn’t feel like doing what he told me to.
“Oh well then,” he stated before he took a deep breath and looked towards the ceiling. A gesture I recognised from the beginning of every long story he had ever told.
“Now, I loved your grandma deeply. And she was a hell of a woman, but to this day, I have not met a more remarkable woman than Ms. Elvira Marie von Blachteinbourgh.”
He stopped a second to look me in the eye to see if I was still following. I stared back at him with eyes that could freeze an ocean.
“No, remember, this was before I even knew who your grandma was. The year was 1963, the year I moved to New York to attend Columbia University Business School. You remember I’ve told you I had an uncle in New York at that time who owned a small boat building company?”
I nodded affirmative. I also knew that grandma and grandpa didn’t meet each other until 1966. Still, I didn’t want to hear about a love affair grandpa had with another woman years ago. Before I could think of something to say he continued.
“So your great grandpa, my father, saved up a lot of money and sent me to New York to go to school. There my uncle helped me to get in to Columbia and even set me up in the dorms at campus. He was living out on Long Island with his wife and my cousins himself. Anyway…
I arrived in mid-September. The big city air combined with the tall skyscrapers almost suffocated me at first. Thanks to Central Park and its cool autumn breeze, Sunday dinners at my uncle’s house and new friendships I survived the first month.
One night in late October, my friends and I were out drinking and smoking at the jazz club across campus, ‘The Sax’ I believe it was called.”
Grandpa caught me raising my eyebrows. As far as I knew grandpa didn’t smoke. In fact, he used to give grandma a hard time about her smoking, which usually ended with him sleeping on the couch.
My grandma broke her leg once because she fell down from a ladder when she attempted to clean the gutter. Grandpa was out golfing as usual and grandma’s philosophy was based on a belief that she could do anything he could. She fell down and was lucky she only broke her leg. She had to wear a cast for months and couldn’t get anywhere on her own. Grandpa saw an opportunity to make her quit smoking and hid her cigarettes. After two days she threw a crystal vase towards his head. She pleaded insanity and grandpa surrendered. He didn’t say another word about her smoking after that.
Grandpa chuckled like a guilty man.
“Yes, sweetheart I must confess I used to smoke some in my youth. In my defence though, they were still arguing whether or not it was dangerous for you,” he pleaded.
I shook my head ironically. Him being a hypocrite made me a little angry again. Considering what pain in the ass he was to grandma about it I almost wanted to yell at him, but I managed to keep it cool.
“Did grandma know?” I asked.
“Of course. The first time she talked to me was to borrow my lighter.”
“Really? I would’ve thought she would’ve given you a harder time about it. I mean, you used to harass her quite a bit for her smoking.”
Grandma was known to point out when people behaved hypocritically. I guess I got that from her.
Grandpa placed his elbows above his knees and leaned forward. The look on his face seemed to belong to a conspiracy theorist.
“But not when she knew you were right.”
He leaned back and I had to bite my lip in order to not burst out in laughter. He had really thought that through. For some reason I found that immensely cute.
Grandpa’s face had the expression of a birthday boy. When I looked at him I realised that he needed that. Who cared if I didn’t want to hear about it, in the end it cheered up grandpa and that was the important part.
“So, you were out drinking and smoking with your friends you said.”
“Yes I was, at ‘The Sax,’” he said. “There was something special about that place. Its music and their malted whiskey made us feel like boys again. We felt free from the responsibilities that waited for us at the library and for some of the guys even at home. You see a few of my friends had wives and one of them even had a baby on the way. The pressure to finish school and get a good job was real. ‘The Sax’ made us forget all about it.
It was just another night out until the pianist started playing Dream a Little Dream of Me from the four by four stage located in the corner between the bar and the washrooms. The song was stripped down to only him, his fingers and the tangents. The way he captured the jazz tune woke me up from the whiskey doze. And then not a second too late or too early, a woman’s voice, originated from the shadows behind the pianist, spread through the room.”
I stared at my grandpa as his teenage smile bursted into song.
“Stars shining right above you. Night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you.’”
We both started to laugh. We laughed because grandpa was a terrible singer. It was so bad grandma once threatened to divorce him if he didn’t stop singing when they worked in the garden together.
As our laughs faded away grandpa looked at me with the look of a man who just saw an old friend.
“Oh, Opal darling it was another time. It had started to boil in Vietnam and the US’s relationship with Soviet was still very much tense. Everyone from the outside were a suspected communist. The atmosphere was different, but I swear to you, as soon as she started to sing, the whole room exhaled. I, as many others turned around to see who it was, and there she was, the magnificent Elvira.”
He closed his eyes in reminisce.
“She sparkled like gold in between gravel in that room. In a long white dress, diamonds around neck and wrists, hair that curled by her waist and a feathered bolero resting on her shoulders. She made me feel like Jay Gatsby and she was my Daisy.”
He tasted his words complacently.
The Great Gatsby was one of grandpa’s favourites. He made me read it when I was twelve. I remember I didn’t appreciate it as much as he had hoped. After that he frequently brought the book up in conversation. Probably because he thought I didn’t fully understand the book and was afraid explaining it explicitly to me would embarrass me. Truth was that love stories, especially tragic ones at that, didn’t do much for me.
But regardless, both his story and Elvira had spiked my interest.
“Wow. Did you go out with her?” I asked. As always I was in a hurry to get to the point.
“I don’t think it was possible to go out with Elvira. But at that point I didn’t even know who she was. As soon as the song was finished she disappeared behind a curtain on the stage, so I turned to my friends in hope of getting some answers.
‘Just a regular student’ one of them said, even though no one had ever seen her in a class or knew what she studied. ‘The dean’s daughter’ said another one, hanging around campus because she was too young to go to college herself. ‘A wealthy socialite’ said a third one, wasting her time and money around the city and ‘a ghost’ said the last one, the ghost of a girl who had died near campus forty years ago. Even though they didn’t agree on her origin they all knew her name; Elvira Marie von Blachteinbourgh.
I’m still not sure that was her real name. But 22-year-old-me did not care. I wanted to get to know that girl, and so that was what I set out to do.”
“I bet you never gave up either.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I was too intrigued to let Elvira go.”
“Of course you were,” I said.
Grandpa had always been a very determined person. Without a doubt a quality you need when you start your own transportation firm. However, I remember another girl he was too intrigued by to let go. Grandpa had spent weeks learning to handle a hunting rifle in order to join grandma’s father on the annual fox hunt so he could get his approval. Grandpa was scared to death by both rifles and the thought of killing something else than insects. He showed up on grandma’s door step in shiny black boots, an army green woollen suit, a red hunting hat which rested on his eyebrows and a rifle under his arm. Grandma said that when she saw him that day she knew he was the one. She ran into his arms and kissed him and when grandpa caught her his rifle fell to the ground and a shot was accidentally fired. It apparently hit a pigeon out on the street, and when grandma’s father came out to see what had happened he was so impressed with the shot that he immediately started calling him son. I always expected the story wasn’t entirely true, but they both seemed to stick with those turn of events. When I asked why he would go through all the hassle of learning to do something he was terrified of for a girl he said he was to intrigued by her to let her go.
Grandpa motioned for me to get up from the floor and so I did. I walked over to the bed and sat down opposite of him. Grandmas clothes where spread all around us.
“Here,” I said and handed him the bracelet I still had in my hand.
He took it in his hand and studied it. After a few seconds he put the bracelet in his pocket before he continued to tell the story.
“You know I spent almost every night in ‘The Sax’ the next month hoping I would see her again. I asked the people who worked there if they knew how I could get in touch with her, but of course I wasn’t the first guy to come asking about her and they seemed both secretive and genuinely ignorant when face with the question.
Thankfully my determination didn’t go unnoticed. The night before the Kennedy assassination one of the bartenders caught up with me when I got ready to leave.
’Wish I knew what’s so special about you,’ he said.
His eyes were piercing me.
’Here,’ he continued and handed me a note.
Before he turned around and walked away he said:
’Elvira says hi.’
I opened the piece of paper with a mixture of shock and excitement. Written on it was an address I recognised as somewhere on the Upper West Side. As soon as I gathered myself I ran out in the streets to haul a cab, you should have seen me.”
He shook his head in light laughter. It made me smile.
“I was so nervous when I sat in that cab. I knew I had seemed very confiden, but the truth was I wasn’t all that. I wasn’t sure what I would say or if I would be able to say anything at all.
The cab stopped outside a brownstone apartment on the corner of west 87th street. I got out of the cab, gathered myself and walked up the stairs. I knocked on the door twice.
She opened the door seconds later, almost like she had been waiting by the door.
Her smile really hit you in the gut right between your ribs. It made it a bit hard to breathe. By the look of it she was well aware of her abilities because she didn’t seem to have any expectations of me starting the conversation.
‘Oh hi John darling, I’ve been expecting you,’ she said as she gestured for me to come in.
I had of course left my name with every person I had talked to about her, but to hear her say it surprised me. It took a few seconds before I realised that someone had actually forwarded my messages to her, and that was the reason why I was there.
I stepped in through the door past her and waited for her to lead the way. The room I stepped in to was a narrow corridor. It was painted in a baby blue colour and had renaissance paintings along the ceiling. At the end of the corridor there was stairs leading to the first floor, but Elvira walked into a room through a door on the right so I followed. The room we then entered was a true masterpiece.
Straight forward implemented in the wall was a grand fireplace with a dark embroidered wooden frame. It made the fireplace the eye-catcher of the room. In front of it stood two navy blue velvet chairs, probably from the 18th century with a tiny table between them. The table looked old and so fragile I was concerned the bottle of wine and the two glasses placed on it would make it break. The room was covered in bookshelves and books. It was the personal library I had always dreamt of having.
The wall facing the back of the building had a window revealing a fire escape on the outside. Resting on the floor below the window was a black leather bag, and behind it you could see that the room was painted in the same baby blue colour as the corridor.
’Feel free to have a seat,’ she said, and an awkward ‘thanks’ was all I managed to utter before I sat down in the chair furthest away from her. Then she sat down in the other one and offered me a cigarette.
I nodded and she handed me one and a matchbox. My fingers trembled a little bit as I lit my cigarette. I took a puff and handed the matchbox back to her.
She was wearing a long sleeved black evening gown and her hair up tight. When she sat she lifted the dress up a bit in order to not wrinkle it at the bottom. It revealed a pair of black stockings.
’I heard you’ve been looking for me,’ she said. The way she said it so casually made it feel very intimidating. I coughed.
’Yes, ehm.. I saw you at ‘The Sax’ the other night, and I-I-I just knew I had to find you, and get to know you. You were wonderful.’ I stammered back.
Then she said:
’Oh, well. You’re just too kind. But it’s impossible to get to know me dear.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
She took a sip of her wine, staining the glass red with her lip stick. She looked me in the eyes for a second before she stood up and walked towards the fireplace.
’Oh, haven’t you heard? I’m a ghost,’ she responded.
She turned around to look at me with absurdity in her eyes and let out a forceful smile. I laughed gently back at her.
The sound of a car pulling up outside followed by the slamming of a car door wiped the smile off her face. She ran over to me and said:
‘Help me get out of this dress!’
I was more than confused, I was startled.
’Unzip me, now!’ she screamed quietly.
She kicked off her shoes and turned her back to me. I heard keys rattle outside and realised someone was on their way in. I did as she said and she slipped out of the dress she was wearing. Afterwards she grabbed my arm and dragged me with her to the window.
’We need to get out of here,’ she whispered.
She picked up the leather bag lying on the floor, gently opened the window and started to climb out of it and down the fire escape. I could hear the front door open so I followed quickly. She led me behind a staircase on the corner of the street and hid behind it before she caught a breath. That was the first time I really saw what she was wearing. She was wearing nothing but stockings and a black silk undergarment. As it was early November I imagined she was freezing. She opened her bag and pulled out a pencil skirt and a blouse which she elegantly put on before she slipped into a pair of flats. I stood there paralysed watching and didn’t realise she was looking at me with disappointment in her eyes until she cleared her throat in order to speak.
’My dear, are you ever going to offer me your coat?’ she asked arrogantly.
’Oh, of course,’ I said startled as I ripped off my coat and handed it to her. She put it on and stroked it as she hugged herself.
It was a woollen coat the colour of a graveyard. It was passed down to me from my father and it meant a great deal to me. I have to admit, the sight of her caressing it made me proud.
She looked at me from over her shoulder and said:
’I like you. Maybe I’ll see you around some time.’
When she said it she made me feel like a schoolboy who just got praise from his teacher. She then walked over to me and leaned in to kissed me on the cheek. The shock that gripped my face seemed to amuse her because she giggled gently before she turned around and walked away. It took me a few seconds to gather myself before I ran after her. But to my amazement, it was already too late. When I reached the street she was already on her way into a yellow cab.
I had to walk five blocks in the biting cold without my coat before I got hold of one myself. Luckily I had enough change in my pocket to pay the driver. My infatuation for Elvira had turn into mere frustration when I reached home. Can you imagine how many questions I was left with? Whose house was it? Who was entering it, and why? Why did Elvira flee? I really didn’t know what I was supposed to think.
I didn’t realise the keys to my dormitory were in my coat’s inner pocket until I stepped out of the cab. Now I was properly angry. This woman did whatever she wanted without thinking about consequences and clearly without thinking of others. While I was walking crestfallen towards the dorms I damned the day I laid eyes on Elvira. How was I supposed to get into my room? I was planning my break in as I turned the corner of the building. Then I noticed something hanging on the doorknob of the door leading to my dorm. As a got closer I realised it was my coat. I grabbed it and checked the pockets to see if anything was missing. It wasn’t. Inside was my wallet, my keys and a note from Elvira. It read:
‘’The Sax’ this Sunday at 11 pm.
P.S. Thank you for the loan.’
It was the same handwriting as the note I got from the bartender at the bar. Even though I was still angry, the fact that she delivered the coat back felt like a really nice gesture at the time. And it made me long for Sunday. I was too intrigued not to go and I really want to see her again, but most of all I was too curious to find out how she knew where I lived.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I heard grandpa tell a story that detailed and engaging. I was fascinated and I wanted to hear more. However, I was not very impressed with that Elvira woman.
“Hold on a minute. She got you to come over to a stranger’s house, spends five minutes with you then make her escape out the window, steals your coat, but because she so thoughtfully delivered it back to you, you wanted to see her again?”
“I don’t know what to say, sweetheart, she was one of a kind.”
I rolled my eyes. To me it sounded like grandpa was thinking with something else than his head and that she had him around her little finger. It didn’t seem like a story with a good outcome.
“Now, the next day the whole nation paused as the news of John F. Kennedy’s death spread throughout. Classes were cancelled and all that was talked about for the next three days were Lee Harvey Oswald and poor Jackie and the kids.
But Sunday came and I went over to ‘The Sax’ an hour earlier than agreed. I was a bit nervous and needed some liquid courage to keep me going. The clock hit eleven and she was nowhere to be seen. I waited patiently at first, but when the time started to lean against midnight my patience was about to run out. You know how I feel about people who make other people wait don’t you?”
I rolled my eyes at his question. Everyone in our family had learned to respect grandpa’s hang up on being on time. It was even his company’s trademark. ‘Proud to be the most punctual transportation company in the UK!’
“Ehm.. I would say so yes. You still say dinner’s at 7.30pm when it’s actually at 8pm.” I said.
He looked back at me proud of his own cleverness.
“Well, finally you and your parents have started to arrive on time,” he responded with a matter-of-fact tone in his voice.
He never got angry with us if we were late, but you could see the disappointment in his eyes when you barged in the doors a quarter past.
“But speaking of dinner, I’m kind of hungry. Do you think you can continue the story while we eat?” I asked.
“Of course sweetheart. I think I could eat myself. What do you feel like eating?”
“Do we have all the ingredients to make angry pasta?” I asked hopefully.
Grandpa flicked his eyes back and forth as if he was reading from an invisible list hanging in the air. Then he said:
“I believe we do.”
And just like that my body was filled with the kind of joy only good food can give.
Grandpa’s story was long and detailed, but it didn’t automatically mean it was boring. That Elvira person he talked about seemed like the kind of person I would like to meet, but only so I could punch her in the face. I found it fascinating how interesting people always seemed to also be very annoying people. But then again, it’s these people one tell stories about fifty years later.
Grandpa started lining up all the ingredients on the kitchen counter. I immediately started chopping the vegetables, which usually used to be grandma’s job. Grandpa put a casserole of water to boil and continued with breaking the spaghetti in four.
I started with the carrots. They needed to be cut in cubes the size of a pencil tip, and with my level of patience I figured it was best to start with them.
“So did Elvira come eventually?” I asked, eager to hear the rest of the story.
Grandpa had started to make the sauce by mixing melted butter with soy sauce and flour.
He cleared his throat.
“Oh yes, she did. I got tired of waiting and got up to leave when I heard her voice behind me.
‘Going already?’ she asked surprised.
I turned around and she was standing right behind me. I almost didn’t recognise her at first. She was wearing a short black wig, sunglasses and a dark trench coat wrapped around her waist.
As stupid as I was I said I said I was starting to think she wouldn’t show, all apologetically and cowed. Her presence made me feel that way.
‘I am so sorry I kept you waiting John. You see something popped up a few days ago, something I simply could not get out of, and the whole thing ran a lot longer than I had expected. Please do have me excused,’ she said.
Of course I excused her. It was impossible for me to be mad at her for long. I walked over to the other side of the table and pulled out the chair for her before settling down in my own.”
Grandpa put the spaghetti in the boiling water before he walked over to where I was standing to get the garlic.
“She must have been some woman grandpa,” I said.
He took out the garlic press from the drawer next to the stove and pressed two cloves into the sauce.
“Well, you know I was young. I had never met a woman with such confidence and mystery before and I think I felt both privileged and scared to be in her presence. Now you see these women all over TV. Empowered women I think they’re called now. In the 60s a woman like Elvira was seen as a wild thing and not someone one would marry because she would be impossible for a husband to handle.”
As he said it he gently poured the crushed tomatoes into the sauce.
I stopped chopping and turned around.
“What are you saying grandpa?”
His words sounded so wrong to me and I wasn’t sure if I understood him correctly.
“Darling the times were different. You can’t change history.”
“It just sounds so wrong. Specially to hear you say it,” I said before going back to the chopping.
“I know, and it is. And was. Hey, I married your grandma. She was a wild thing if I ever saw one.”
That made my chuckle.
“She was, wasn’t she?”
“She was the craziest, most lovable women and I don’t think it was possible to love someone more than I loved your grandma.”
His voice teared up at the end and I couldn’t help but tear up a bit too. The room went quiet. The only sound came from my knife hitting the cutting board and the boiling water surrounding the spaghetti.
I finished chopping the carrots so I walked over to grandpa and scooped the carrots into the sauce. He was stirring the it so it wouldn’t burn.
The silence was killing me so I figured I’d make him continue telling the story.
“So, how did your meeting with Elvira go from there?”
He cleared his voice.
“It started out great. We ordered drinks, a whiskey for me and a white wine for her. After the waiter left she gave me this dubious look. So I asked if something was wrong.
‘I didn’t see you as a whiskey man,’ was what she said.
‘Oh really? What kind of man did you think I was?’ I asked.
‘A beer man,’ she said.
According to her one could tell a lot about a man based on what he drank. She said that leaders and CEO’s drank martinis, that Wall Street men loved their gin tonics and their old fashioned because they thought it made them seem interesting. And beer men were usually loyal, easy-going and hardworking, like family men.”
“Wow, I should write this down.”
I had finished chopping the peppers while he spoke and went over to put it in the sauce.
Grandpa chuckled while he checked if the spaghetti was finished by throwing a piece on the cupboard. It stuck so it was finished.
“I don’t think you should treat these statements so seriously, love.”
He took down the piece of spaghetti and put it in his mouth.
“So what about men who drank whiskey?” I asked
“She described whiskey men as risk takers, adventurous and fun. Such as writers or other creative beings. She said that whiskey men were unpredictable and that it was exciting and scary to be around them.”
“Sounds like she was describing herself to me,” I said and went over to pour the chopped onions into the sauce.
“That’s exactly what I told her!”
He drizzled some chilli powder over the sauce, and then we waited for it to boil.
“I said that and that I’d never met a person scarier to be around than her.”
“And how did she respond to that?” I asked.
His level of enthusiasm while telling the story increased when I started to participate and show more interest. When we stood there waiting for the food to finish I remember thinking about how good that made me feel. Making grandpa happy made me happy.
“Oh, she loved hearing me say I was scared of her. I think she slipped out of character for a second because she let her body exhale in a way one do when they are relieved. That made her feel a bit more human and so I relaxed a bit more too after that.
Suddenly she leaned in and took my hand and said I had nothing to be afraid. She sat back in her chair and said:
‘Okay so I’ll tell you what, ask me three questions. Anything you want and I’ll be as truthful as I can and afterwards I might not seem so scary.’”
The food was finally finished so we took a plate each, helped ourselves to the spaghetti and sauce and sat down at the kitchen table.
“So what did you do?” I asked, with a mouth full of burning hot spaghetti.
“I asked her three questions of course,” he answered before he continued: “It was a golden opportunity to get to know her. But I didn’t know where to begin because I realised I didn’t know a thing about her. So I just came out and asked.
‘Who are you??’ I asked, ‘the real you, not the woman who sits in front of me.’
She sighed in disappointment over my question and said she expected more of me. I didn’t answer her back. Instead I sat up in my chair and stared back at her, letting her know I was serious. It seemed like I made her a bit uncomfortable. She looked away and stroked some of the hair from the black wig behind her ear, then she looked up at me again and answered:
’Dear John, you ask a question to which I cannot give you a clear answer. To someone I’m nobody, to others I am just me. But mostly I am who it is required for me to be. It’s easier that way.’”
Grandpa stopped talking in order to start eating. I stopped eating anticipating his response to her answer. I took too long.
“And?” I asked.
He wiped his mouth with his napkin.
“Well, I knew the first question was a farfetched one, but I was really dissatisfied with her answer. So I asked her why she was like that, to which she asked:
‘Is that your second question?’”
“Oh my god, no! I hate people like that!” I uttered.
“I wasn’t too impressed myself to be honest. She could really irritate you sometimes. And in that moment you could feel the tension between us. I was getting more and more frustrated with her by the minute. When I sat back in my chair again and our eyes met all signs of our smiles were gone. So I said:
‘Fine. Whose house were we at the other night?’
That made her smile again. But not a genuine smile. More the kind of smile that was meant to ease the rigidity that strained us.
‘A friend’s house,’ she answered. ‘A darling old man, I think you would have liked him. That’s all I can say about that.’
I didn’t know it at the time, but Elvira’s sense of truth usually meant not actually lying. Looking back at our conversations I can see a pattern of never getting the whole truth. She always left you wanting more and knew exactly how to make herself interesting enough for you to still be interested in her. She wore her secrets on the outside as a shield you needed to pierce through.”
“But why?” I asked.
“Protection I guess. We all have some kind of defence mechanism we use in order to keep people away or keeping them from getting too close,” he answered. “Your grandma’s vulgarity or how you laugh everything off for example,” he continued.
I raised my eyebrows at him.
“Or how you talk people’s ears off?”
“Exactly,” he answered.
“So what happened. What was your last question?”
“Well, with only one question left I wasn’t sure if I should ask how she knew where I lived or if I should ask what made her late. I chose the latter.
I could see she was debating whether or not to tell me the truth. And of course I couldn’t be sure she did. But she told me she was in D.C. that day paying her respect to the late JFK.”
“Oh my God, did you meet Marilyn Monroe?” I blurted out.
Grandpa give me a loud ‘HA HA’ and shook his head.
“She died a year before I moved to New York, love,” he answered.
“Oh…” I said, a bit embarrassed, “I didn’t know. But what did you respond to that?”
“I asked her why she felt the need to travel to D.C. and stand in line for several hours in the biting cold to see his casket. She said I had used up all my questions.”
“Oh no she didn’t!”
“Yes she did. My chin probably hit the table when she said that. And do you know what she said after that? She said:
‘Now wipe off that look on you face. I’m going to the powder room, should be back in a minute.’
She stood up and sauntered away from the table. But that wasn’t the worst part. Ten minutes later the same bartender from the night before came over to our table and handed me another note. He handed it to me without saying a word but he looked both satisfied and happy. I opened the note and on it Elvira had written:
‘Until next time. E.’
I couldn’t say I was surprised, but it did hurt.”
“Wait, she left again?”
“Yes she did.”
Grandpa started putting food in his mouth quicker than he could swallow. I had finished eating so I sat there and processed his story while I let him eat.
I couldn’t see anything remarkable about Elvira. She was manipulative and downright mean. Empowered woman? No, grandpa had it all wrong. Preying on your looks to get what you want is not what empowered women do. Empowered women are hard workers, ground breakers and role models. They get to where they are not by using looks and by being manipulative, but by respecting people and making other people respect them. The impression I had of my grandpa was that he shared my view, so I told him that.
It wasn’t my intention to come off as preachy, but in the end I just went on. It made grandpa smirk. I hated when people smirked at me. It was like I walked straight into his trap, because in reality it was the face of a proud grandfather. So I fell for the urge and I shouted:
“What is it?!”
“You’ve grown up to be such a smart and reflected young woman,” he said. “You show you have a mind of your own and you’re unwavering on what’s right and wrong.”
He had finished eating himself so he took our plates, got up and put them in the sink.
“Your grandmother called herself a feminist,” he continued, as he started to rinse the dirty dishes and load the dishwasher. “But sometimes she got the word power confused with respect. When we were young female bodies were used as a tool to sell cars, to shock people and it was probably the best tool a woman had to take control. But it didn’t earn her respect. It’s important to understand that.”
I went over to help him with the rest of the dishes.
“I know,” I said. “I didn’t take every advice grandma gave me seriously.”
“Well, that’s good to hear.”
He looked at me and we both laughed.
“But you know that nothing much has changed right? Female bodies are still used to sell things and even though it gets harder and harder to shock people, there are people who still manage to do it. And it’s still used as a tool by girls, maybe not to get power, but to get attention. Attention is more important than power nowadays. Or maybe it equals power, I don’t know.” I sighed as I said it.
“I know. But at least you aren’t one of them, and that’s the only thing that matters to me.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. I went in and gave him a hug.
“Thanks,” I said.
“For what?” he asked.
I didn’t answer and he didn’t ask again.
After we finished cleaning the kitchen, we found some biscuits to eat and made ourselves a cup of coffee each.
“We were both wrong about Elvira by the way,” grandpa said after emptying his cup.
“After that night at ‘The Sax’ she contacted me again. She showed up at my dorm one night and dragged me to a party in Downtown Manhattan. It was a really tiny apartment. You could barely walk without spilling your drink. Nevertheless, it was great. It was filled with people from different social classes and even from different corners of the world. It was fantastic, and I swear your grandma would’ve loved it.”
He took a bite of his biscuit before he continued.
“Anyway, Elvira seemed to know everyone at that party. From the black couple dancing tango to the guy from Cuba responsible for the tango beat. From the Italian-American ripping off two young Wall Street men by cheating at poker to the lady apparently owning the apartment. The owner was a very petite woman named Mindy. I would never have guessed that Mindy and Elvira were friends. Mindy acted a lot more down to earth than Elvira. It might have been because of the fact that she was high on marijuana, but it might also have been the way she was dressed. She walked around in something that looked like a cotton nightshirt. It was forest green and way too big for her.
I was talking to a fellow English man when the police came barging in. Everyone ran away in different directions and it got chaotic. I realised I hadn’t seen Elvira for a while and there was no way to find her in the panicking crowd. I managed to hide under a sofa so the police didn’t find me and convinced myself that Elvira had done the same.”
A part of me looked in awe at what he was telling me. Next to grandma grandpa never seemed very cool. And for some reason I felt this gave him more of an edge.
“Later I found Elvira passed out in the alley behind the apartment. I had climbed down the fire escape in case the police still were outside, and there she was. She laid bloody and beaten on the wet cold cobblestones. I ran over to her and woke her up. I said I was going to take her to the hospital and that everything was going to be okay, but she refused to go to the hospital.
‘They’ll just call him,’ she said.
She couldn’t stand on her feet and I didn’t know where she lived, so I lifted her up, got hold of a cab and took her back to my place.”
“What did she mean with ‘They’ll just call him.’?” I asked.
“That was my question too. The next morning when she woke up I gave her some breakfast and also demanded some answers. She admitted she was married. Her husband was a very powerful man, and also very controlling. He was much older than her and she married him when she was only eighteen. She didn’t fit into the suburban housewife role he wanted her to play. She felt empty and alone and eventually she’d had enough. She said she couldn’t do it anymore and that she wanted a divorce. Her husband was a high profile politician at the time so a divorce would be too embarrassing for him. In other words, he refused. When she in return demanded, he got violent with her. With no other option she ran away. After a while however, they came up with an agreement. She accompanied him to functions, held a low profile and didn’t embarrass him in any way in return she got her freedom. JFK’s memorial that night she was late was one of them.
Some of her husband’s friends had seen her at the party that night. They didn’t think she kept the agreement she had with her husband. She tried to get away when they approached her and she had no intention to go without a fight. Luckily the police showed up so the men got scared and ran away.”
“Oh my god,” I said.
Everything made a lot more sense to me after grandpa told me that. Poor Elvira had probably been controlled most of her life. Controlling other people became the only way she could feel power herself. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how she must have felt.
“Yes, I was shocked too,” grandpa said. “We became a lot closer after that incident. It made our friendship become more equal. But apparently not close or equal enough I would later find out.”
“What do you mean by that?”
The story just seemed to be never ending at that point, but at the same time I wasn’t sure I wanted it to stop.
“There’s no secret that I was in love with Elvira at the time. I didn’t know her well, but I felt like I could do anything for her. However, after that night it slowly wore off. The mystery surrounding her disappeared more and more each day I spent with her. I guess I felt like I tore down the wall she had built for herself a little bit every day. Then again, at some point you just realise the other person doesn’t like you the same way you like them and there’s nothing you can do about that.”
“But what did she hide from you?”
I was impatient. Grandpa just shook his head and smiled back at me.
“It turned out that nothing anybody was saying about her was true. She lived over ‘the Sax’ and payed rent in form of a performance once in a while. It wasn’t very glamorous, but it was what she felt was necessary in order to keep a low profile.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, can you tell me what she was hiding from you now?”
It felt like he dragged the story along just to irritate me at that point. If not, it was another one of his attempt to teach me how to be patient. I could never tell the difference.”
“Like I said, we started to enjoy each other’s company more and more. We went to a lot of parties together and her friend Mindy started to join us more often as well. She was a nice girl, I must say. A little bit too sarcastic for my taste, but she was good at heart you know.”
“Oh my God grandpa, why don’t you just get to the point?”
He looked at me deceitfully and waited a few seconds before he answered.
“What do I always tell you? The key to a healthy life…”
“Is patience. I know, I know, I know,” I interrupted.
I sighed, but crawled up into the chair with my cup of coffee and got ready to hear the end, the way grandpa intended it.
“We usually met at ‘the Sax’ or she would come over to my dorm and we would talk about everything from my family, to politics to music and movies. She baffled me with her knowledge and I remember thinking she would make a great politician. She didn’t like me saying that though. She wasn’t a big fan of politicians. When I thought of her locked up as a housewife with the purpose of breeding children and cooking dinner I got both sad and angry. It made as little sense to me as tea without milk. There she was, so beautiful and so bright. Her dream was to go to college and become a lawyer. She wanted to fight people like her husband and help other housewives get out of their abusive or controlling marriages. She was a true inspiration, I tell you.”
“She sounds like it, grandpa.”
Grandpa paused for a minute. It was almost like he teared up a bit, but managed to control it. Then he looked up at me with his boyish smile again.
“You know we had so much fun. She and Mindy made me do things I never would have dreamt of doing. We once broke into the Central Park Zoo to pet the sea lions, can you imagine that?”
“No way!” I expressed surprisingly.
“Yeah, your old grandpa was a bit of a rebel in his youth too,” he responded proudly.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Here I’ve been thinking all my life that grandpa was the safe and boring one that tamed the wild and crazy grandma, when it turned out that birds of a feather actually do flock together.
Suddenly grandpa’s face turned grey and he looked down on his hands.
“About five-six months after I first met Elvira we were supposed to go to a party in Brooklyn and I was supposed to pick her up at ‘the Sax.’ I waited and waited, but she never came down. I started to get worried about her so I asked the bartender who had been her note carrier if he could open the door for me. The poor guy was so in love with her he couldn’t even stand the look of me. I somehow made him understand the situation and he got worried too. He got the spare key they had behind the bar and opened her door for me. I walked in and yelled her name several times, but nobody answered. It was a very small studio apartment, so the only room she could hide herself in was the bathroom. Just to be sure I walked over and opened the bathroom door.”
Grandpa stopped to catch his breath.
“I found her lying in her bathtub covered in blood stained water. She had slit her wrists open. Both she and the water was cold, so I presumed she had been dead for a while. There was no note or anything, but she was holding this.”
Grandpa reached into his pocket, pulled out the bracelet and handed it to me.
“Turn it around,” he said.
I turned it and I noticed an inscription. I read it out loud.
“’To the love of my life. Forever yours, Mindy.’”
I looked up to grandpa for answers.
“Elvira and Mindy were lovers. She never told me, or anyone I think. She was ashamed of it and herself. She couldn’t deal with the shame I suppose and saw no other option.”
I didn’t know what to respond to what grandpa was telling me. Some hours earlier I had felt a similar kind of shame and considered the same exit route. I just tried as hard as I could not to start crying while grandpa continued.
“I still feel disappointed that she didn’t talk to me about it. I don’t know if I would have helped, but I would have tried. I would’ve reminded her of the fact that however bad she was feeling she’d probably felt worse before. And also how easy it is to feel better when you’re already so low.”
I kept looking down to avoid eye contact and to keep the tears from coming, but I could feel grandpa’s concerned look embracing me.
“So I guess what I’m trying to say is…”
Grandpa paused for a second.
“Whatever you’re feeling now, you’ve survived worse and you will experience better.”
I knew he was right. That day was far from the worst day in my life. The worst day of my life happened over a year earlier. It was a Saturday and it was fresher’s week. I had spent the night before out pub crawling in Camden. My phone was on silent so I haven’t heard any of the twenty something calls my parents had made. I woke up to someone banging on my door and yelling my name. Hungover and confused I got out of bed and unlocked the door to find my parents standing there with looks of horror on their faces. I asked numerous times what was wrong, but they kept insisting I should sit down. I did and they sat down next to me on my bed. That was when dad told me. He told me grandma had died of a heart attack, and it was like someone knocked me out. Everything got very blurry and it felt like the whole room was sitting on my chest. I couldn’t breath and I couldn’t talk, I just collapsed into my dad’s arms and started sobbing. He was crying too. Even my mother was.
A year later I could still feel that pain. It was stabbing into my chest at times and made it hard to inhale properly. I had read somewhere that grief was like a pointy triangle. It circled around in your chest every day and stabbed you with every turn it took. Eventually the triangle would be grinded into a ball. Its edges wouldn’t stab you anymore, but the weight of the ball could still be too heavy at times. In the end that ball would be grinded into a diamond. A diamond of love and memories you would carry with you forever.
“’If our generation could survive coming of age in the 1950s, we can survive anything.’ Isn’t that what grandma used to say?”
Grandpa shook his head gently and smiled.
“That wasn’t your grandmother. Gloria Steinem wrote that.”
I bit my lip and smiled.
“Of course she would take the credit for someone else’s words.”
We both looked down on your hands in silence.
“I miss her so much,” I eventually said under a breath of tears.
Grandpa walked over to me and placed his arms around me.
“I do too sweetheart.”
Then he kissed the top of my head, just like grandma used to do.
We didn’t finish packing down all of grandma’s stuff that day. We finished what we’d started and carried the boxes into the Prius. Amongst her clothes I found the canary yellow jumper she wore the day she taught me how to cycle. I put it on and didn’t take it off the rest of the weekend. It was way too big for me, but I loved it.
Early the next morning we ate our breakfast and drove her things to her favourite vintage shop in Reading. Ironically most of her clothes were bought there, so we basically just handed them back.
When we parked the car in the driveway afterwards I asked grandpa:
“Did you ever find out how Elvira knew where you lived?”
Grandpa paused a second to think.
“No, I forgot to ask.”
“How could you forget to ask about that?”
“I don’t know. Somethings are just better left unknown.”
He looked over at me and raised his shoulders.
“I guess some things are,” I responded and raised my shoulders too.
We got out of the car and started to walk towards the house. Grandpa came over to me and placed his arm around my shoulder. He shook me a bit and said:
“I’ve always hated this jumper.”
Then we laughed all the way to the front door.