Sweet on the Tongue
My grandmother, eighty-seven, has changed the name of the nurse’s aide who tends to her. She didn’t like the woman’s real name, said it tasted strange in her mouth. She calls the aide Maria so now we all call the nurse’s aide Maria, too. Maria tells me this story when I meet her while visiting my grandmother, who lives with my aunt, next door to another aunt and down the street from more aunts and a few uncles. When we meet, I tell her I already know everything there is to know about her. Information travels at alarming speed through the intricate gossip network of our family. She says, “I could say the same.” The way she looks at me makes me uncomfortable. She looks at me the way a man might.
I’m visiting because my grandmother told my mother she didn’t want to die without seeing her youngest granddaughter one last time. She makes such pronouncements with regularity. She has been dying for nearly twenty years but no one lives forever.
Maria has a big ass. My grandmother tells Maria this regularly. She has reached that age where she lacks tact. Despite my grandmother’s concern about the size of Maria’s ass and her unwillingness to call Maria by her given name, they get along quite well. Maria treats my grandmother like her own. She brushes my grandmother’s thin, silver hair each night before bed. They love to argue about the shows they watch. They talk about the islands where they were born, the warmth of suns they once knew.
On the first night, my grandmother falls asleep watching the evening news. News of war exhausts her. Maria and I smoke in the small backyard, leaning against a brick wall. My grandmother was not incorrect in her evaluation of Maria’s ass but Maria is attractive, not much older than me, dark brown skin, white teeth, soft, sweet smelling skin.
I ask for her real name and she waves a hand limply. “Just call me Maria.”
Her accent is familiar. The evening is cold; it hurts to breathe too deeply, a cold to which our island skin is not accustomed. When Maria exhales I inhale.
“Do you like this kind of work?” I ask.
Maria shrugs, ashes her cigarette. I can no longer see the edges of her face. She steps closer, leans in until I can feel her breasts against mine. “Do you like your kind of work?”
My cheeks warm.
We fall into a routine over the next several days. When Maria is ready to smoke, she taps my shoulder, lets her fingers rest too long, and I follow her outside. She asks about my life. I can see my family’s fingers on her questions. I am vague in my replies.
On Friday, Maria gathers her things while the night nurse, a far less congenial woman, settles in front of the television next to my aunt who is half asleep, her lower lip hanging wetly. Maria nods toward the front door and I follow. On the stoop she says, “I cook,” and I say, “I eat.” She presses a tightly folded piece of paper into the palm of my hand.
Maria’s address is written in block letters and numbers, even her sixes and nines. When I arrive, my fingertips are numb. Maria has changed from scrubs into a denim skirt and a red silk camisole. I stand awkwardly in the hallway, my hands tucked into my armpits.
“You don’t have to feed me. This isn’t part of your job.”
Maria cocks her head. She walks away and I follow dumbly. The apartment is small but clean. The walls are heavy with pictures, many of them black and white. We walk down a long hallway to the kitchen, where the air is thick and hot. My pores open hungrily.
“Can I do anything to help?” Maria arches an eyebrow but shakes her head. She points to an empty chair and I sit, shrugging out of my jacket.
I do not visit my family often. Already I am exhausted—so many of them, so demanding, pulling me into meaty embraces and age-old, petty squabbles. I live in Los Angeles in a large loft apartment with a man, Campbell, who works a great deal. He is an agent. He takes care of a select group of clients, all of them stupidly famous. He makes them a stupid amount of money, so he makes a stupid amount of money. We are married and our marriage is complicated but good, better than good. When he proposed he said he understood me. He said all he would ever ask of me is to love him. I do. I don’t do anything in the way of compensated work even though I have several degrees that make my lifestyle seem ridiculous at best. Five days a week, I volunteer at a clinic where the people think me far better than I am. Sometimes, Campbell comes home late and I hand him a gin and tonic. We talk about his day. I ask him if he wants a break, if he wants me to help him shoulder the burden of our life together. He squeezes my shoulder and kisses me and takes a long sip of his drink and kisses me again. He says he wants to take care of me.
You can read the rest by buying the Fall 2012 issue of The Pinch.