Ghosts

By Angela Tung

Memoir

“Cancer,” my father’s voice whispered in the night.

I rolled over on the mattress on the floor. The light was on in my parents’ bathroom.

“Cancer,” my father said again. “Now it’s in her bones.”

Nai-nai, I thought as I drifted off back to sleep. He was talking about my grandmother.

The year my father’s mother got sick was the same year I couldn’t sleep. I was nine and had seen The Exorcist at a friend’s house by mistake. I didn’t know it was scary till the girl started flipping back and forth on her bed, her eyes rolled up, and her throat swelled as though by a bee sting.

“Maybe you shouldn’t watch this,” said my mother, who was playing mah-jongg with the friend’s parents. But it was too late.

Shortly afterward, I came down with the flu. Weird thoughts of demons and shaking beds mingled with my fever. Too much cough medicine gave me hallucinations – the curtains in my bedroom shrank and grew, shrank and grew – and the jitters. I had ringing in my ears and could only sleep where there was noise – in the living room with the TV on, in the den with the clock radio, anywhere there was someone else so that I could hear their breathing. On bad nights though, nothing worked, and I’d sit snuffling on the stairs, long past midnight.

I was already an anxious kid. I worried myself into stomachaches over book reports, was terrified of situations with lots of people I didn’t know, and broke into tears over any harsh word. But now I felt nervous all the time.

One night when my father came home from work, I threw myself into his arms. I was crying uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” I sobbed. “I can’t help it.”

My parents worried silently, as they did about everything. Our grades, the mortgage, the kids on our block who called us ching-chong. My father kept his concerns about my grandmother quiet too, whispered only to my mother at night.

He rarely talked about his family. It was my mother who showed us the black photo album hidden in the closet, the tiny black and white photos of Nai-nai, older and younger, but always the same. Her hair in a bun, her face bare of make-up, her large bucked teeth protruding over her lips.

“You don’t want teeth like Nai-nai’s, do you?” my aunts on my mother’s side said when they learned I was still sucking my finger.

No, I didn’t. I wanted to look like someone pretty in my family. Everyone said my brother resembled my mother’s handsome baby brother. I told myself I was the spitting image of my father’s beautiful sister.  I knew I actually wasn’t, that I took after my father, who had Nai-nai’s smallish eyes, her peasant cheekbones, and thick coarse hair.

“Your grandfather didn’t want to marry Nai-nai,” my mother told us. “It was an arranged marriage.”

I gazed at the photos of the handsome young man. He had big eyes, round black glasses, and favored natty suits and ties. When the Communists took over China, Nai-nai and her two children fled to Taiwan while my grandfather stayed behind. I wasn’t sure why. He worked for the government and couldn’t get away. Or he underestimated the situation and thought his family could return. Or he saw it as a chance for escape.

Whatever the reason, he’d eventually marry the widow of one of his colleagues, and would raise the widow’s daughter as his own.

At nine, I didn’t think too much about my grandmother, although I knew she was ill. I wasn’t close to her the way I was with Puo-puo, my mother’s mother. Puo-puo was loud and fat and cooked constantly – dumplings, scallion pancakes, and steamed buns. During the summers, she taught us Chinese, and quizzed us like a real teacher. My grandfather, Gong-gong, would watch game shows all afternoon with the volume turned high.

“Come on down!” he’d shout with Bob Barker.

The several months Nai-nai stayed with us was like living with a specter. She mostly stayed in her room, knitting vests and socks from brown scratchy wool. She’d make sudden appearances, once to present to my brother and me origami animals she had folded from pages torn out from old magazines (we weren’t impressed). Another time to scrub pots and pans with the same torn-out pages, which for some reason, made my father mad.

“We have perfectly good paper towels!” he yelled.

When the weather got warmer, she emerged again to wander in the wood behind our house with a scythe. I wasn’t sure what she was trying to do. Clear weeds, perhaps. Sometimes she returned with flowers; once she came back with poison oak.

My father was so angry, he couldn’t even say anything, just shook his head. My father rarely lost his temper. If he did, it’d be for a second, then over, unlike my mother who was a storm that raged on and on. A nurse came to help with Nai-nai, and it was my mother who sat with her and translated.

Nai-nai was always nice to us, in her quiet way. She was always smiling. But I was glad when she returned to L.A.

* * *

My nervousness continued through the rest of the school year.

Scary things followed me everywhere. Commercials for The Elephant Man on TV. I didn’t know what Joseph Merrick looked like, but what I imagined was far worse. The two-faced man on That’s Incredible! UFOs and aliens.

When my language arts teacher didn’t feel like teaching, she read us Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe. We fourth-graders listened with horror at The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Sometimes I was able to tune out, but then somehow I’d catch the scariest parts: a man peering through a keyhole to see a troll-like creature drain a woman of blood. At night I’d lay petrified, wanting but not wanting to peek through the crack of the door, in case I saw the same thing.

My father came and went, came and went, to Los Angeles. He’d always leave in the early morning and return in the dead of night. Finally, that spring, Nai-nai died.

“Bow to Nai-nai,” our mother told us gruffly. We’d just run in from playing. A large picture of Nai-nai, embossed inexplicably in a porcelain plate, sat on the kitchen counter.

Did my father know? I wondered stupidly as I bowed once, twice, three times. He was watching television in the living room. He had no reaction.

I wasn’t sure if I believed in ghosts, but I wondered if Nai-nai’s was with us. The creaking in the room where she stayed were her footsteps, the heater click-clacking were her knitting needles. I stopped sleeping in the den, which was where Nai-nai had slept. I bunked in my brother’s room till he got sick of me. Finally, over a year later, I moved back into my own room.

* * *

I once asked my father about his father’s second wife. I was in the 7th grade and had a family tree assignment. My question was purely pragmatic: Should I include his father’s second wife and daughter in the tree?

My father’s face darkened. “Who told you my father has a second wife?” he asked. “My father doesn’t have a second wife.”

Confused, I felt my cheeks burn. “Mom said – ” I started.

She appeared in the doorway. Without looking at her, my father asked, “Did you tell her my father has a second wife?”

Her mouth dropped open. “No,” she said. “I didn’t say that.”

It would be a long time before I asked my father about his family again.

* * *

My junior year in college, my grandfather died, and only after that could my father display his portrait. Only then would the black album appear on the shelf with our other photo albums, and in it pictures I hadn’t seen before. My grandfather and two young men in 1930s New York. Decked out in suits, fedoras, and long winter coats, they posed on top of the Empire State Building, on Fifth Avenue.

I was amazed. How was he able to go? Did he ever get to go again? Did he think, looking at the snapshots my mother secretly sent him, me on Columbia campus, at Rockefeller Center, in Central Park, Now my granddaughter is there too, where I once was, so long ago?

“My father was very handsome,” my father says now. “Of course I look like my mother.”

I don’t know if my grandfather’s second wife is still alive. His stepdaughter is. Does my father ever think about seeking her out on one his annual trips to China with my mother? His stepsister would be able to tell him all about his father. But would it be too painful, knowing how much he had missed?

My father is now the same age as Nai-nai when she came to live with us. She had already seemed ancient at 70, as though I might break her if I sat on her lap. My father walks three miles a day, and sings karaoke and plays mah-jongg several times a week. He reads two or three books at once, and paints constantly.

But he’s aged suddenly, in the past five years or so, since his retirement. His hair is grayer, he’s a bit more stooped. He can’t hear as well. He’s not a grandfather yet, and I want to make him one, not an easy task now that I’m 38. Some nights I lay awake worrying about this. What if I never get pregnant? My boyfriend and I could adopt but would that be the same? I don’t want my father’s lineage to die out.

I’m not ready yet for my parents to be old. I look for obituaries of people ten, fifteen, twenty years older, and somehow that makes me feel better. I don’t want them to be breakable, then gone, then mere ghosts. I can hardly bear to imagine walking through their empty house, only traces of them left in hollow clothes, untouched books, the places in the bed where they once slept.

For now, I remind myself, they’re real. For now, it’s not too late.

I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.

Super Bowl Sunday. February 7, 2010, 2:00 p.m.

If the hereafter has a switchboard, it’s jammed today.

There are prayers going out to the saints, for the New Orleans Saints. St. Jude might be getting a break this afternoon. He heard pleas for four decades, I’ll bet, for that lost cause of a football team.

My own grandfather requested divine intervention for his home team, year after year. Some weekends, I sat within earshot of him and my uncles as they shouted and prayed. Lord, the noise! Dear Blessed Mother, the fumbles and fouls! In my smart-mouthed youth, I might have asked aloud why they continued to cheer every season for such losers. I am almost certain I, too, muttered the slur, The Ain’ts. All involved, please accept my apology.

For years my grandfather, Irwin Alton Simpson, recited this poem every Christmas Eve, usually after a few shots of whisky. I’m not sure of its origin or when and where he first heard it, but he was an advertising man in Manhattan and, later, the Ad Director for the St. Petersburg (FL) Times, so he knew a ton of bawdy jokes and dirty limericks. (This poem is pretty tame compared to some he knew.)

After he died, the torch was passed to my father, Richard Irwin Simpson, who did an equally fine job, as he was also an ad man. He still recites the poem, even if it’s sometimes over the phone. James Irwin Simpson, that’s me, will be the next torch bearer.

With much love on this Christmas Eve, I share with you all this poem.

 

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the prison and the warden was walking the halls

Shouting ‘Merry Christmas, prisoners!’ and the prisoners replied, ‘Balls!’

This made the warden quite angry and he swore by all the gods,

‘You shall have no Christmas pudding, you dirty lowdown dogs!’

Then up spoke one old prisoner with face as hard as brass,

‘Warden, you can take your Christmas pudding and shove it up your ass!’

I got my hair cut and then my grandfather died. 

I knew one had nothing to do with the other, but for some reason, for months after, I was unable to cut my hair.  I wore my hair mostly in a ponytail or crumpled atop my head, but there was no hiding the split ends, its drab dullness.  Sometimes I just let it fall where it may, flapping and resting wildly on my shoulders. 

My grandfather would never have let his hair get into such a state.  He was a classy guy.  Always impeccably groomed.  He could pair stripes and plaid and pull it off with grand ease.  Sometimes he wore funny ties, ladies lounging in martini glasses and that kind of thing, but it was never cheesy – just pure sass.  Even in the hospital when he had been ill a couple of years ago, hooked up to machines, stripped of his beautiful clothes, his only wardrobe a hospital gown and sheet, I couldn’t help but notice that his nails were perfectly manicured, freshly buffed.  He was sleek and elegant, unique but classy.  He had been in retail, head of Gimbels, back in the day when Gimbels meant something.  So he knew about appearance. 

I have never been that way.  Askew is a word my friends would use to describe my style.  Cute, funky, but never completely without a wrinkle or a rip.  I do what I can to not be a walking disaster.  My hair is usually something that while not blown, curled, teased, set or held together by product, is usually trimmed and neat.  That much I have been able to do.  But since that Sunday, many months before, the color was fading, the gray was showing and my hair bands were snapping at all the extra use.

Before that last haircut, my hair was finally getting longer, growing out after I had chopped it one day.  But it was just kind of falling there.  My baby fine hair didn’t swing and flow as I wished it would.  So I called up my stylist, Moses, to see if he could fit me in.  It would be layers.  All over.  They would add depth, movement.  Drama.  I loved it.  And so did the people I saw that night.  “Best haircut you’ve ever had,” I recall someone saying.

Then my Aunt called.  My grandfather was in the hospital.  Something had happened the night before.  I was assured I didn’t need to rush home.  I live in Los Angeles.  He was in New Jersey.  I asked my Aunt to tell him that I loved him.

I get the sequence wrong, but he fell into a coma, I was looking into flights and then the phone rang.  I didn’t answer it.  I made my husband get it.  I knew.  A moment earlier I had felt it pass through me.  Jay handed me the phone and I heard my Aunt say, “This is the phone call.”  I had dreaded this moment, but had been anticipating it.  He was in his nineties.  He’d been in the hospital before.  But he had always pulled through.  I didn’t really believe the call would ever come.

I fell deep into the couch, heaving and suffering, digging into its yellow color as if bad news did not exist within its cushions. 

We went to New Jersey, to the funeral.  I shook as we approached the cemetery, then stood frozen.  Two graves I could handle, but this now made it three.  I made it into the building with my family, his friends.  I actually felt pretty in my black wrap dress and new haircut as I greeted my family.  The prettiness provided me with a strength. 

There is something about funerals.  Something about the ritual and the routine.  There is a reason we travel 3,000 miles to hug our family and eat food together.  There is a reason.

Later, in the confines of my bedroom in my mother’s house, I turned to my husband as we prepared for bed.  “Let’s make a baby,” I whispered to him.  It felt mostly like a plea.  “Let’s make a baby,” I said again.  “And name it Bernie, boy or girl, okay?”

He took me in his arms and took me to bed and agreed, never divulging the truth that we both knew, that I was on the pill and baby making would not be easy.  But I needed to believe that in that instant I could create life on a wish and a demand.

I returned home and went about my routine.  I was in a fog but no one would know unless they asked.  I hid it well.  And fairly soon after my return, they stopped asking. 

There is a certain amount of grieving to be done for grandparents.  They were old.  It was expected.  Glad to have known him so long.  It wasn’t a parent.  I repeated these beliefs over and over until I myself started to spout their truths.  And then eventually I just stopped talking about it.  But in my car alone, I cried.  The streets would just pass by me as I drove, bright lights and other people going about their days.  And then I would arrive at others’ doors and I was fine.  See, I thought I knew about grief.  I was a child of death, after my father died when I was four.  I should know how to handle this.  My grandfather’s death had halted me but I felt I could not show it, so it showed in my hair.

My hair.  My wild mane defied how I seemed: together, rigid almost.  But my unkempt disarray actually defined how I felt: distressed, discouraged, stalled.  The mirror spoke a truth only I knew.  I felt I carried a secret everyone around me should know, but one I felt compelled to keep to myself.  Or maybe they all knew.  I did look a mess.  And yet I was unable to do anything about it.  Whenever I called Moses he was never there and I took that as a sign that I should not get my hair cut.  My grandfather’s death had stalled me so that I could not even make an appointment for the future.  If Moses was not there right then, there would be no haircut.

I have never taken hair that seriously.  I was never locked into a look.  I’d cut bangs on a whim, highlight with no worries or chop off my hair when a boy had made me cry.  There was a certain freedom to changing it up.  What’s the harm?  It’ll grow back.  It’s just hair, I reasoned.  Hair bounces back.  It is the only part of your body that you can change without any serious consequences.  It was something I knew completely.  But then at that moment, I knew nothing.

What is it that I fear will happen?  Will someone else die?  I don’t have that much power I remind myself.  If I go for a hair cut my mother’s plane will not crash, my grandmother will not die.  I know that rationally.  But what if I did have that kind of power?  What if this was the time my powers were turned on.  One action causes another action.  Coincidence is actually consequence.  Or what if it were pure coincidence and it happened again? 

But separate from that, hair carries our past.  My grandfather’s in there.  He’s in my DNA.  I had this hair when I knew him.  The hair on my head was created by his side.  And I am not ready to part with it.  It is my tangible access.  At times I just want to shave it all off, be done with it.  But mostly I just want to keep as much of it with me for as long as I can.

I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror.  Staring back at me with my hair falling where it may, I saw a different girl.  My hair had reached a certain length and wave at that moment that I looked earthy.  It struck me.  It was the first time for a while that I could remember thinking I was pretty.  And it had nothing to do with the mop on my head.  Possibly it wasn’t my hair that had been weighing me down, but me.  And maybe just maybe, that part of me was waking up.

I went to see Moses. 

I told him straight away about my hair, my grandfather and my phobia.  He greeted me with a sound in his voice of someone else who had gone through a recent loss.  I knew his grandmother had recently died.  He got it.  He did not judge.  It was perfectly reasonable to think if you cut your hair someone would die.

He wouldn’t cut much off he assured me.  Just clean it up, make me presentable.  Maybe fiddle with the color a little?

“Okay,” I said.  I needed to trust him.  I needed to just follow along.  I needed to know that I could do this.  The Police’s King Of Pain played above.

Then, he asked how he died.  That surprised me.  To tell the story.  Most people hear grandfather.  92.  Dead.  And they don’t need to know how.  It was hard to tell.  “Dehydrated…coma…cardiac arrest.”  I was unsure I even had it right.  But it also felt good.  Real.  I don’t know if I thanked him for asking but I meant to.

He continued to cut my hair, layers around my face. 

The world did not end.                                                       

My cell phone did not blare with bad news. 

He colored it to give the brown some unity and then lightened the top pieces that fell by my eyes.  He said he wouldn’t even charge me for the highlights. 

I made it through this part.  I took a deep breath as he twirled me into the mirror’s view.  My hair rested on the floor.  I rose up in the seat, lighter, as he revealed the streaks of blond racing across my head. 

That’s better.

I thought the story would end when he started cutting.  I wanted to feel all better.  I wanted it all to lift up and be done with.  I wanted to leave it on the floor with the hair being swept away.  As I looked in the mirror, I knew that was not the case.  The grief and the hair were two different things.  But I also knew as I gazed upon myself, with my new lovely hair that brought out my eyes, that I was in there somewhere.

 

 

My mother gave my father a Diane Arbus photo book for his birthday the year I was ten and he was thirty-four. The entire family (Mom, Dad, my older sister, Becca, and my younger brother, Josh) gathered around and slowly waded through it, picture by picture. The pages were thick and glossy and smelled remotely of plastic. Almost all the photos were portraits—people whose entire lives seemed exposed through the simplest physical details. There was the terrorizing image of the boy holding a toy hand grenade, the stoop of the Jewish giant who stood beside his small rodent-like parents, the overly-shadowed nasal-labial folds on the middle-aged woman cradling a baby monkey whose face is identical to hers.

And then there was the Topless Dancer.

She sits in a chair in her dressing room in San Francisco, wearing a long sequined, chest-cut-out gown, which I have always imagined to be red (the photo is in black and white). There is a slit up the front of the gown, revealing her crossed legs, shimmery in stockings—closed-toed pumps on her feet. Her sleeves are long and flared with boa-like feathers at the cuff. Other than her face and hands, her breasts are the only bare flesh she exposes: giant breasts, buoyant-looking, inflated to the point of bursting. One finger is pushing into a breast so you can see that there is little give—like a waterbed upon which your body won’t make a dent. Her nipples are glowing, bright eyes beckoning, yet blind to the viewer.

At the time, they were the strangest, yet somehow most fascinating breasts I had ever seen. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen a lot breasts—we lived in Southern California, it was the seventies; my parents and their friends had frequent pool parties where all the adults were naked as the children cowered at the water’s edge in their chaste orlon swimsuits. What made the topless dancer’s breasts special was the fact that the purpose of their exposure was simply so that they’d be appreciated. They were breasts for the sake of breasts—breasts beyond normal human breasts—breasts as a prurient object of desire that had nothing to do with the person who wore them.

The following year, in Fifth grade, my own breasts began to develop. I discovered it while sitting on the edge of my bed in my underwear. There was a pain, or throb in my breasts, something that called me to them. With a fat dirty-nailed finger I rubbed and prodded until I found a large sore nut underneath the thin skin of each nipple. I called my sister in, she was fourteen, a flat-chested gymnast, on the precipice of anorexia.

“What’s this?” I asked, and I pushed her finger onto one nob.

“You’re developing,” she said. Then she looked away, furious, almost-panicked and called for our mother. “MOOOOM!”

My mother came in the room—she wasn’t a doting or involved mother, but she did have an interest in my brother, sister and me; she liked to observe and note us in the same way that she noted the details of the faces in the Diane Arbus photos.

“Jessie’s developing,” my sister said.

My mother placed a finger on my nipple and rubbed.

“Yup,” she said, “you’re developing.”

That was the beginning of a three-year rift between my sister and me. It was when I started to receive, without ever asking, the things she wanted most.

Sometime in the middle of the school year, the swollen garbanzo beans beneath my skin pushed out so that through a thin tee-shirt or blouse, one could see my puffy nipples. The Mediterranean climate of our town—our location on the jagged California coast—demanded no hats or mittens or woolen vests like I’d seen on television or in magazines, so it never occurred to me to hide or cover up my new developments. And then came the day that Kevin H., who was often teased because his father was a gay activist, pointed at me as I walked down the open air hallway, and shouted, “Jessica’s sprouting!”

It was a refrain no one could resist repeating. And how could I have blamed them, as even to me, the words Jessica’s sprouting sounded freakishly interesting. I was sprouting—growing things with seeds I had never planted, tending to a tiny crop that already was of great interest to my peers. People love breasts, and I was starting to get them. My thrill of them, however, seemed like a secret I wasn’t ready to share. I asked my mother for a bra.

All underwear for my sister and me was purchased at J.C.Penny. The dressing rooms were in the Lower Level, a dingy place with carpet that looked like it belonged in a basement or a carport. Back then, girls’ bras came only in white or beige (think of teeth: bleached or tobacco-stained). And one fabric: polyester. Mom hustled me out of the dressing room as soon as we found two that fit, handed me the credit card and let me pay for them myself (a deeply embarrassing transaction) while she rushed outside for a cigarette.

The bras provided a good barrier—they hid and cradled my breasts until the time I entered high school where I eventually discovered the power of breasts; the power of the Diane Arbus Topless Dancer.

“Jessica,” wrote one boy in my ninth-grade yearbook, “I’m glad you sit near me in math. I like the clothes you wear. Love, John.” Other than his signature, there was nothing in that inscription imitative of the usual yearbook platitudes. I was stuck on the clothing line. My uniform throughout high school consisted of shorts, flip-flops and Hang-Ten tanks, tees or halter tops. There were hundreds of girls, mostly blonder, taller, tanner and prettier than I, who dominated the fashion scene at our school.

At a beach party to celebrate the end of the school year, I approached the John who liked my clothes.

“What do you mean you like my clothes?” I asked. He was holding a Lowenbrau, squinting into the sun.

“I like your clothes?” He took a step closer, I could smell the tangy beer on his breath.

“You wrote that in my yearbook,” I explained.

“Your body,” he grinned, “everyone can see the shape of your boobs and your butt in your clothes.”

“Everyone?”

“Everyone who looks,” he said, “and I always look.” John laughed quickly with a machine gun hahahaha, as if to cover up or blow away his words.

I was startled, but also fascinated by what he had just revealed. It gave me a thrilling awareness that I was unable shed: there were people who were actually looking at me.

That summer my family took a trip back east to see our relatives. I was fourteen, about to be fifteen—fully grown into the same size and shape I am today. My sister was seventeen. She had had her bout with anorexia and was one year into recovery. Within a matter of months she had gone from size 0 to size 6; from flat-chested to a C cup; and from amenorrheal to menstrual. Our builds were opposite: where I was broad-hipped, she was slim; where I was small-waisted, she was not; my legs were soft and doughy, hers were sinewy and narrow. But we both had large breasts.

A farewell party for my family at my uncle’s house in Vermont produced the following scene:

My grandfather is at the bar (this branch of the family consists of people who have actual working bars in their houses: beer on tap, neon Coors signs, St. Pauli Girl mirrors, the whole shebang). He is holding a glass half-filled with chunky ice cubes, amber scotch covering the ice with just a couple glassy peaks sticking out. My uncle is on the other side of the bar, pouring drinks, watching people, listening.

My sister, Becca, and I are standing together, near our grandfather, but not so close as to have a conversation with him. We are talking to each other, discussing our cousin Donny who has grown handsome, man-sized, since we last saw him, and who has invited us for a ride in his truck in order to smoke a joint.

My grandfather lifts his glass towards us and speaks loudly in the way of people who command rooms, the way of people who are used to being listened to by everyone around them. “Would you look at the tits on these girls?!”

My sister and I aren’t sure who he’s talking about at first. We both look at my grandfather, cautiously. We are, it seems, the only girls in the room.

“Rodney!” my grandfather says, and he turns to my uncle behind the bar, “Can you believe the tits on these girls?!”

And now we know that indeed our tits are the subject of this public conversation. Instinctively, we huddle closer together. I can feel my sister breathing; I can sense the tension coming off her skin.

Rodney smiles, nods his head, raises a glass as if to toast our breasts.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, “You’ve got mighty pretty granddaughters with mighty big tits.”

Finally, our grandfather addresses us directly. “Do all the girls in California have tits like that?”

In our confusion, we nervously giggle. This is an encounter for which we are not at all prepared. I feel like I am panting, yet somehow not breathing.

“Well?” he asks, laughing.

Becca grabs my hand and pulls me out of the room, still giggling. She says nothing to me about what just happened and so I say nothing, too. We avoid our grandfather for the rest of the party, although I am always aware of where he is. It is clear that neither of us wants to be seen by him in the same way that yearbook-writing John had seen me. I learn then that the thrill of being looked at depends entirely on who is looking at you.

I never saw my grandfather again. We left the next morning and, as usual, he
avoided the goodbye scene. The next year, as my grandfather was dying of cancer, my mother flew to his deathbed. When she came home from the funeral, my mother reported that his dying words were, “I never should have had children.”

“Well,” I said to her, “at least he didn’t mention your tits.”