After three weeks, I had trained my eyes not to open and my body to remain perfectly still when the bedroom door opened early in the morning. The slightest movement- even an automatic muscle twitch in response to the creak of the hinges- would be interpreted as an invitation to begin conversation. I’d tried just locking the door before I went to bed, but on those mornings she invariably discovered that the carpeted hallway outside of my room urgently wanted vacuuming. This possum sleep was my best defense, as she preferred to simply “find” me awake; a direct rousing would have been too difficult to deny.
It had been nine months, six more than I had planned. In the mornings I used a white, thin-handled coffee cup, printed floridly with hummingbirds, that was not mine. All of my cups were left behind, being used by someone else, someone new. I worked a little in a chain restaurant, and drank a lot in a friend’s trailer. I took my dog on walks so I could get high in a nearby field. Otherwise, the dog was confined to a small square back yard, where she was bored out of her mind and scolded for digging. Sometimes I painted on the porch, but only when my grandmother was at chemotherapy. The one time I painted when she was at home she’d asked if I ever painted flowers or a cross, twin lines between her eyebrows as she darkly studied the neon breasts and thighs emerging from the canvas.
Even when she wasn’t home, I didn’t paint often. The colors didn’t seem to come as they once did. My hand felt awkward on the brush, capable only of making shapes that seemed disjointed and unfamiliar with each other, as incongruous as the iron urn of dusty fake flowers that stood next to a figurine of Elvis holding a machine gun in my grandmother’s curio cabinet. Besides, most of my supplies were in a box in the garage. There was nowhere to keep them inside.
Sometimes when we spoke she assumed the expression of one who has chosen the wrong shoes for a lengthy outdoor activity. My grandmother had gone straight from her parents’ house to her husband’s, and had lived alone since he died. What sort of companion she had hoped for in a nineteen year old lesbian granddaughter, rife with the stench of socialistic tendencies and fresh from a first heartbreak, I can’t say. What I can say with absolute certainty is that I was not measuring up. Perhaps she’d thought I’d rescue her from her own thoughts, which she had always sought to control and curb like radioactive waste. I would have liked to, but I couldn’t stay awake or sober long enough.
My grandmother could only eat when others were eating. She’d wait for me to wake up before frying an egg. Her avid sweet tooth, combined with her southern female restraint, led to endless rounds of asking everyone in a room, “Wouldn’t you like a piece of pie?” until finally someone relented. Then she’d have hers, too. She tried unsuccessfully almost every day to get me to eat dinner at 3PM before I went in to work a dinner shift at the restaurant. After I’d refused at least thirty times, she started buying frozen chicken pot pies, individual serving size. She said she’d never gotten used to cooking for less than eight people.
In the spring, both my grandmother and my broken heart were in remission. I quit smoking cigarettes long enough to save up the deposit on a new apartment in another city, where the hallway was hardwood and both my painting supplies and my dog would have a place out in the open. Some friends were having a party under the pretense of sending me off with well wishes, but really it was just another time to get fucked up. My grandmother noted the overnight bag slung over my shoulder and the phone charger I had unplugged from the wall. “So you’re staying out on the last night, too?” she asked, turning away from me slightly. “I guess I’ll just make myself a chicken pot pie.”
Seven years later, I drove the sixty miles to my grandmother’s house to stay the weekend. The Elvis figurine had been replaced by a Felix the Cat clock. My grandmother’s hair had been replaced with a pink knitted cap which I suspected may have actually been a tea cozy. It hurt her to eat, but she still wanted to try. I brought a strawberry cake, Venusian pink with thick cream cheese frosting, a lasagna, and a giant chicken pot pie. “It’s so much better when it’s homemade,” she sighed, picking up bits of pastry crust with her forefinger.
The morning she died, I wore her hummingbird t-shirt and sat on the porch where I’d tried to paint before. The other family members had clustered off into nuclei and gone home. It would be another three days until the funeral; there was no point in me staying in the house by myself until then. I packed my things, took from the refrigerator the containers of salad greens I’d brought for myself, poured the half-empty bottles of Ensure down the sink, nothing left to supplement. Then I heated up the last serving of chicken pot pie and ate it standing up in the pale March sunlight in the kitchen. I washed the pan and left.