by Jo Szewczyk – as originally published on Minus Paper
She spoke in time to the clang of the kitchen waitress’s movements. Her blonde hair hung like smoke off her face. ‘The one I was named for. She hated me.’ Her line floated in the air of the busy Paris diner. A little boy eating an ice cream carried it with him on the wind.
I couldn’t decide if the twist in her voice was intentional to display the level of hate or if it was something a bit more subconscious; something brought up by the very memory of her own name. She took a bite of her horse before continuing. I played with my fries, trying to decide if it was polite to use my fingers or not.
Her eyes, mirrors of my own turquoise, glanced over my finger as it made contact with my fry. I pretended not to notice either gaze or digit. ‘When I was a young teen, my grandfather died. I was working, and I got a call to visit her.’ She took a fry of her own—with her fingers—and dipped it into a sauce that was too pink for mayonnaise. ‘You know, to see how she was doing. My grandfather wasn’t sick, so it was a bit of a shock to us. I visited her after work. “Madame, I am so sorry to hear about your loss…”’
I paused the story in my mind. I remember being a polite child, maybe painfully so, her use of ‘Madame’ stood out to me. There was respect in that word, but a weight attached to it; a weight of longing for an acceptance that hadn’t come.
‘She looked at me and said, “Thank you. I need to go to the doctor, as I am in a terrible melancholy.” She said this to me without a tear on her face. I told her I would take her to the hospital so she can see her doctor. She asked me why her favorite grandchild, and she used that very word, “favorite,” couldn’t take her instead.
‘“Meghan can’t come right now because she is busy.” I said, as I already knew whom my grandmother was talking about. She made no qualms about who her favorite was.’
Desiree sat in front of her plate. The redness of the horse meat made me wonder about if it were raw, much like the egg on top, or not. My companion smiled—a teasing smile—one that I would get to know better soon enough. It’s the smile that pulls lightly against the lips. A raspberry smile that promises the future and stays in your eyes encased in amber.
She chopped her horse up with clinical precision and changed the tempo of her story. No longer was the waitress’s beat line good enough to follow. ‘I was shit and Meghan was everything I wasn’t. Except Meghan wasn’t there. I don’t really know if she was busy or not. I said it because I didn’t want to hurt my grandmother’s feelings. You know.’
I did know. Although I never met Meghan or the grandmother, I could see a bit of myself in that story. Always reaching. Always grasping. Yet never quite feeling complete or good enough. I nodded my head. The waiter took that as a sign to come to our table. With a flick of the hand, I waved him away.
‘I drive her and she’s quiet. Not a word. Not even a…’ she chomped her teeth together to indicate a sound. ‘When we get to the doctor’s she is still quiet, that is until we get her into the waiting room. She starts to sob and shake. “Oh, my poor Phillip! Why did he have to die so! I can’t live without him!” She would keep this up until the nurse went for the doctor. At this point,’ she snapped her fingers, ‘no more tears. My grandmother just sat there looking at the wall art and then,’ another snap ‘as soon as she saw the nurse come back with the doctor, she started up again. Double so like she had to make up for lost moaning.’
We looked at each other. I liked her smile. She liked my nose. She drank a bit of my soda and winked.
‘She gets the pills she wanted to get from the doctor and continues to cry as he walks us the car. Mind you, she never once cried before in her life. Not a single time that I could recall. Here she was crying,’ this is where she rubbed her eyes and twisted her lips into a faux pout, ‘like a little baby. It was embarrassing. The doctor turns to me and says, “You must be Meghan, I heard so much about you” but I correct him and say, “Meghan is my cousin. My name is Desiree.” The doctor looks at me and holds my hands like this,’ she stops her story to take my hands into hers. There is a soft jazz song coming from outside. There is a reggae beat to match it. ‘He goes, “my dear child, I thought you were dead.” Just like that! My grandmother has been telling people I didn’t exist for the last 15 years.’
That did seem a bit extreme for a grandmother. My own grandmother would joke with people about needing an oxygen tank and having strangers help her put groceries into a car that wasn’t hers. One time, she even got a kind gentleman to help a car open that she locked herself out of. The owner found her in the passenger side humming an old Doors tune.
‘Then, once we were in the car and waived the doctor off, she stopped,’ another snap, ‘just like that. She turned to me and said, “I want to buy some cheese. Stop over at Prancisco’s Shoppe.” You know, what really makes me weird is that I truly started to believe she was sorry and those tears were repressed energy coming out finally. At last!’ she accentuated the ‘at last!’ with a dip of her fork into one of my fries. The turn-coat fry made its way from my plate to her mouth via the fork.
I offered the best solution I could come up with, ‘I see what you mean.’ I tried to go for one of her fries but they seemed stunningly out of reach. I aborted the attempt somewhere around the salad dressing. It was a vinegar mix based with fresh herbs. The smell stung the nose with the first bite. It wasn’t unpleasant; it was strong with a hint of citrus. Lemon, I think.
She smiled, put her hand on her fry bowl and pulled it closer to her; her nod meant ‘not yet.’ She took another one from my plate and continued, ‘The cheese maker had a plate of fresh croissants and I teased that he should give me one for free–just for small talk–and he said that his costs money but the ones down the street might be free. It was not matter as my grandmother, once again over her loss–until she saw a neighbor of hers and then she really started bawling. The neighbor cried with her, picked up a wheel of mild cheddar, and exited, taking her cheese and my grandmother’s tears with. On the way out, my grandmother came over to me and said, “Those look great! What a treat they would make for a special someone helping me out through tough times!” To my surprise, she bought two croissants.
‘I drop her off at her place. I think, finally, my grandmother appreciates and loves me! She will surely give me, the person helping her out, one of those croissants. We will talk about all the times past and how she has meant so much to me. She’ll call me her favorite. I parked the car and let her out. We walked up to her house and she opened her front door. She took the cheese and the croissants from me and told me, “Tell Meghan that I miss her.” That was it. She shut the door on me and I was standing there with my mouth open.’ Her eyes twinkled when she said it and her mouth became agape in demonstration. I could see her tongue laughing at me.
I leaned over the table to kiss her. She tasted like hollandaise sauce but smelled of a light vanilla. The mixture was intoxicating. ‘So, your grandmother gave the croissant to Meghan?’ I asked.
She leaned back from the kiss, ran her tongue across her teeth and said, ‘No. I saw my grandmother and my mother with that special croissant on Instagram. It appears that Meghan was too busy for the treat.’
I made a mad dash for my own French fries. I grasped two small ones and put them into the bin of reddened sauce that hung around my plate. I wasn’t exactly sure what the sauce was before—and after—tasting it. If cranberry and ketchup had a baby, then that baby surely would hang out in a Paris diner. I think I ate that baby that night.
She looked at me. Her tongue traced the ridges of her teeth; the ridges where my own tongue traced moments before. ‘A few weeks go by and I run errands for my grandmother. She would give me grocery lists and things from around the town she needed picking up. Most people were amazed that I wasn’t the Meghan they heard so much about…’
‘And were you still dead for some?’ I asked.
She nodded. ‘It was easier to eventually say I was Meghan than to keep correcting everyone that I wasn’t dead. So, that is what I did. I told everyone I was Meghan and that I was just joking to be this Desiree girl. They took “the joke” very well. Some even said that they knew I was joking all along since Meghan was always doing things for the madame. One day that week, I had to take the madame back to the doctor. This time she didn’t fake cry. This time she said her stomach hurt. She hadn’t pooped in three days.’
I nodded in sympathy, as I knew how that felt. I, myself, was already on day four.
‘They kept her overnight, and I got worried. She was never sick before in my life and I didn’t know what to do, so I called my dad, who is her child. He was worried too. He told my mom, and she called the other grandchildren. We all started to come down to the hospital to visit her. Meghan showed up and went to my grandmother’s room. The doctor said she had a bad stomach cancer. I asked how long she had and he said he didn’t know. “It could be years or maybe less,” he lied. I knew he was lying, but he did so to calm the nerves of the family. Do you know of this? When people lie to make others feel better?’ she had directed the last question at the bus boy taking away our dinner plates.
He turned and walked away. The redness of his face was the only indication that he had heard at all. ‘I think it’s easier to love when we expose ourselves raw.’ I said. Desiree beamed at this proclamation. Her hands found mine under the table for a frozen moment. Our fingers entwined. Her fingers were slender–impossibly long–and contrasted my sausage links of a set of digits. Her fingers were perfect from the sheened nails to the last smooth knuckle. My middle knuckles all seemed like a drunken hobo with sunken eyes.
‘Did she last long?’ I asked. I regretted the question. It seemed out of time and focus. Desiree pulled her hands back and smiled a bit. This time her lips pulled towards her teeth. It made her seem like sex.
‘I bought her the best flowers the next day. 50 euros, at least. Here I was, this happy girl walking down with flowers in her hand to her grandmother’s room. I put the flowers down and my grandmother was stiff as a board,’ she put her own legs and arms out to duplicate that look her grandmother gave her. I let out a small, misplaced laugh.
‘She was like this, you know.’ Desiree’s British accent–something hard won–came to a rise with the ‘know’ part of the phrase. She was French, but her English came with a Downton price. ‘She screamed at me, “Desiree! You are not supposed to see me like this!” I told her I had flowers for her and that I loved her. She pointed to the table for the flowers and then the door for me.’
The dessert tray came. She picked a deep-fried Snickers bar while I mulled over a cheesecake topped with cookie dough and chocolate sauce. The chocolate sauce thickened where it kissed the cookie dough. The result was a chocolate waterfall frozen in mid-stream. I saw a chocolate water fall before, it was in Las Vegas and it spanned three stories. My memory recalled a colony of flies stuck in stillbirth, trapped between the chocolate their mother laid them in and the glass the workers put around the waterfall. This dessert sized waterfall didn’t have that fly problem, but it was invaded by a metal spoon. The spoon swept into the chocolate like a fire helicopter scooping water from a lake. It poured its load unto her fried Snickers bar.
‘I went home. Tears just came down my face,’ she pointed to where the drops of water had sprung from her eyes in the years passed. ‘I told my mother about this and she told me my grandmother had called for me tonight. I called her back, “Yes, madame, it is me, Desiree.” and she told me, “Desiree, I want you to promise me that if I die while you are working you do not take time off to see me. It is especially important; do you promise me this?” I told her that I promised.’
She bit into the fried Snickers bar and my cheesecake soon became a second topping for the Snickers. Part of the cookie dough clung to the side of her fork. She served it into my mouth before I could protest. The action made my mouth moist and she took that as a sign of my infatuation with her. And it was.
‘She got better. She came home and all I could hear about how her granddaughter bought her these wonderful flowers. It was all the nurses and visitors could talk about. It finally made a difference to her. She knew I loved her and I knew she loved me.’ Her eyes became wet. It wasn’t a tear but a mist. That same mist got into my eyes too.
‘So, you finally reached her? That’s wonderful. I’m sorry it had to come so close to death though.’ I said as I decided cookie dough definitely belongs with cheesecake.
‘Yes, she came home for the day then died. I didn’t go to the funeral because I had to work–and I made that promise–but my mom said all anyone could talk about was how great her granddaughter, Meghan, was for running her errands and bringing her those flowers.’
The cookie dough slid down the rest of the Snickers bar. A bit of chocolate leaked out. My tongue flicked the corner of her mouth.