I opened Gan’s bathroom cupboard and ran my gaze over skinny perfume bottles, pearl pink and coral lipsticks, lotions with labels in tendrilled script, and a fat breath spray with French Kiss in red swoosh letters. My grandmother was too old to know that a french kiss meant kissing with your tongue, sort of nasty. But I knew these secrets. Brenda and Julia and Lily told jokes around the tetherball at recess.
What I didn’t know was when I would live with Mother again. And why my twinkly, child-sized Gan, the greatest giver I’d ever known, wasn’t giving me presents anymore.
I uncapped the roll-on perfume and slid it over my wrist, making a circle of shine. Here was the smell of flowers and ribbons and new clothes. I needed new clothes. My blue pants were highwaters, and I was just waiting for Brenda or Julia or Lily to roll their eyes and say, “Um, nice fashion statement.” I reached for the top glass shelf and brought down the French Kiss for two spicy cinnamon shots on my tongue. I pocketed a half-roll of Certs snuggled in foil. I was ready for school.
At breakfast Gan lifted her chin from her wattly neck, sniffed the air. “Please don’t use my White Shoulders,” she said. “Or take my mints. Or anything else, without asking.”
I shrugged my shoulders, not white, but sunburned from the hottest September ever. I wasn’t good at asking.
Gan took a bite of her buttered toast triangle. She tapped an envelope on the table. “She’s getting better,” she said.
It was a letter in slanty, spidery handwriting. I’m out of stamps, Mother wrote. And cold cream.
The things a person needs to get through.
Back when I lived with Mother, Gan would step into the apartment door at Dirwood in a birds-egg blue coat that matched her eyes. She brought presents. A rose tea set or a green plastic purse. For Christmas, a platinum-haired doll. For Easter, a chunky metal bracelet of flowers all linked up. Almost two birthdays ago, she sent me outside by the curb and there was a sunshine-yellow Schwinn with a banana seat and streamers sprouting from the handlebars.
These days it was hard turning corners on my Schwinn. It was a lot nearer the ground than it used to be.
Gan’s house was the wrong place to have a birthday coming.
I stood and shook off toast crumbs from my blue pants and got in the car, and Gan dropped me off for school, a block away because I said it was best, but I didn’t say why. Her coral-lipstick mouth puckered and frowned.
Other things I didn’t get anymore: Language Arts. I wrote neat with my number two pencil but missed six questions on the reading comprehension card. Some part in my brain was too small now, didn’t turn sharp corners.
Brenda and Julia whispered as they passed my desk, filing out for kitchen helper duty. Both had light brown hair in Dorothy Hamill haircuts, bouncing and clean in the crosslight of the window and hall. Lily followed. Her blond hair had feathered wings.
“Why don’t you spend a little more time on these questions?” Mrs. Pram said to me, setting down Reading Card Yellow.
No one ever asked, did I want to change schools? Did I want to be the new kid? Did I want to walk the long way home and come around the back, so people didn’t know my mother was crazy and I was living with my grandmother?
At night, there were commercials. Dorothy Hamill’s hair swirled glossy and dark beyond any hair shape you ever saw, Short & Sassy. In the Herbal Essence commercial, the lady lathered her hair into a foamy white cap, and her bare shoulders were smooth, her smiling lips pink and perfect.
What I wanted was a Dorothy Hamill. What I wanted was Short & Sassy Shampoo. What I wanted was A’s in Language Arts like I got at Dirwood.
I filled the tub, smoothed soap on my body in lathered sheets and folded them into tumbling water. I poured into my hand a golden glob of Gan’s shampoo.
I sculpted white swirls of lather and piled my hair high. I smiled over my bare shoulder into the mirror, fingertips in lacy hair, elbows in mid-scrub.
I lay back, my mind hungry for secrets, movie stars. In a basket on the floor were Gan’s magazines. I shook the water and suds from my fingers, patted them on a gold-letter towel, and picked up Better Family Living. It opened to an article, “Fighting Family Breakdowns.”
Gan had circled parts in blue pen: “ . . . mother-child program . . . helping disturbed women to learn the art of emotionally sound mothering . . . break the chain of mental disturbance that so often passes from generation to generation.”
Gan was worried about mental disturbance. Mother passing it on to me. Or maybe that she, Gan, had already passed it on. I shut the magazine, picked up Ladies Home Journal. Marlo Thomas in blue exercise clothes. Marlo Thomas, who had all those cute pantsuits on “That Girl.” Brunette, like me. More like me than Brenda or Julia or Lily.
I put on my frog nightshirt and wound a towel into a movie star turban. I strutted past Gan outside the bathroom. She went in, clicking the bathroom door shut. The door opened again as she pushed into the hall, hands pinching her hips. “You used my Breck shampoo.”
I could never say the things. But I did. Now. My mouth was stiff, stamping words into crisp, even bites. “What? What do you expect? I didn’t have any.”
There was the hiss of breath, no cinnamon, as Gan leaned over me, waiting for something to push her forward, pull her back. “You. Are so self-centered.” She clamped her jaw. Pale without coral lipstick, her wrinkled lips trembled.
None of her words passed whole through my ears. I was looking at a reading comprehension card but not getting it.
“You are the most selfish little girl I have ever met!”
The words missed my ears and went straight to my stomach. My belly began churning slow and dizzy. I sank onto the hall carpet and wrapped my chest with my arms.
Gan gritted her teeth, lurched to the broom closet. The warm petite fingers that used to hold mine were tight, white fists wrapping the broom handle, and her voice was high, broken threads. “You will respect me!” she shrieked. Whack, the broom fell on my back.
Nothing mattered now. I lurched. I laughed. I was a bubble of a girl, someone you couldn’t touch, far away, like on a TV commercial.
Whack, the broom fell on my shoulder. I wriggled, tried to sound tough. “Quit it. Hey, quit it!”
She narrowed at me the sky-blue eyes, now bleary and small. The loose skin of her rouged cheeks flapped with each shake of her head.
She flung the broom away and snatched at a shelf. There was the crinkling of tissue paper as a white package thudded against the door jamb, sliding down the wall. “Your birthday present.”
My eyes were heavy and wet, my eyes that loved presents of all shapes and sizes.
“Want to know what it is?”
Her throw had torn the white tissue. It puckered like dead skin. I looked at it, didn’t touch it, couldn’t let myself feel this hard hurled thing. Not my soft, lathered, clean, warm, movie-star skin.
I unwrapped it alone in my room.
Short & Sassy. The bottle, shiny and whole, the cap tight, the plastic unbroken. It smelled like a cherry blossom crown on an ice-skating princess. It smelled like all the things I needed to get through.