By Mackenzie Kiera
You share two things with your dead grandmother: death and musicals. That’s all you have in common. Had. Since becoming pregnant, you’ve been thinking about her more and more. The weight of her disease falls on you, coils around your heart, tightens and reminds you of your own mortality.
You remember her easiest when you sit with Papa’s cologne bottle in the corner of your bathroom and inhale the dark pine scent—him, you miss. He was the grandparent you visited and called and loved. You were the granddaughter he doted on, bought ice cream for, took to UCLA to see Shakespeare, picked you up from school if you were sick and Mom couldn’t get you.
Her? She was in the background with rules. Things you couldn’t play with. Cabinets you weren’t allowed to open, soft drinks that were hers and hers alone. She always had dark chocolate ice-cream bars, salted potatoes chips, baby carrots and ripe, cherry tomatoes. String cheese. Tiny sandwiches. You’d watch as she spread the mayo on her sourdough bread thinly, gave it some lettuce, turkey and a slice of white precut cheese. Things she could just grab and never binge on, but sometimes she would just need something.
You used to stand there, looking into the refrigerator and ask to eat those bits of vegetables. Those fit-in-your-hand premade sandwiches. They were all so nicely arranged, just sitting there, waiting to be eaten. She’d close the door and offer to cook you something instead. You’d nod, say: “Yes, please,” because maybe manners would make her like you and you always loved her cooking.
The message was clear, though: stay away from her stuff. Stay away from her food.
You didn’t understand it then. Now you do.
You’re going to love that moment, right when the cast of the musical you’re watching finishes their final song, when the lights fade to black and the actors disappear into the dark. You’ve always loved that ending note; it slicks your veins with bright adrenaline and rains down glitter.
It’s when everyone applauds, before the cast has come out to bow and that fourth wall is broken. Everything tingles and you believe in magic, that there is magic in the world. Swear by it. Because you can touch it, can’t you? It’s in the air. Pounding right next to your heart.
Can you see through the tears you didn’t expect?
You love it so much that you joined every school play. Studied Drama in college. It’s on the tip of your tongue, your lips and teeth. That’s what you and your friends used to say, getting your mouths all warmed up. Energy amped up, showing on your face in rosy reds and pinks.
The tip of your tongue, your lips and teeth. Say it ten more times, faster, until it’s everyone shouting, stomping in a circle. The tip of your tongue, your lips and teeth.
Change the setting to the 1930’s and you’d have run away with the circus. Left all your belongings and life in an apartment; torn off your hat and shoes on the way to the docks. You would have run across the street, holding your large, cumbersome dress up so your bare feet could pad along the cold cobblestones, splash in the muck and grey drizzle, heading towards that large, colorful tent of opportunity that smelled of sweat and buttery popcorn because it was calling to you.
It’s in the light that blasts your face with heat. Blinds you and makes the audience immaterial you have to hold together—hold still—with words alone. It’s in the artists who lean close to your face, paint you until you’re prettier than you ever thought you could be. Until you look like your grandmother when she was your age.
You left that make-up on for after parties, caked on, hoping it would keep you preserved and beautiful. Like someone was waiting in the dark, watching you still, even after the curtain dropped. Stay in character always. That’s the rule.
How long did you sit on the stage after the play was over and stare at the empty seats letting it mirror your own heart? Knowing you weren’t good enough to actually pursue that art but man, you sure did love it. Just like her. You can’t choose what you love any more than who you love. Or rather, who and what loves you back.
And is there anything better than the ending? That moment when the air is still and your hands are up and people are applauding for something you wrote, portrayed, acted, tried to sing in? That one final moment when everything belongs together? The audience and the actors and the crew? Everyone holding ropes, notes and poses? Hands in the air.
Your heart told you, sitting on that stage, legs swinging over the edge, that you belonged. You know it. It’s in your blood. And one day, your blood will kill you.
She makes the most sense when you become pregnant. All your life you didn’t bleed right, would get lightheaded, got sinus infections every year. You’d eat red meat and dark green vegetables like they were the last ones in existence, savoring every bite, sucking the bone dry. Once, your periods stopped for six months. Your body felt tired and confused. Then you and your husband had the talk—the adding another member to the family talk. You knew you needed to correct your body. She had been anemic. What if you were too? You wanted your body fixed and healthy before it grew a child, so you started talking iron supplements. For the first time in your life, your periods were regular and three months later, you were pregnant.
In one breath, you were relived. You’d figured out how to help your body. Why during a run you’d have to sit down, take a couple deep breaths to steady yourself. Why any blood leaving your body felt like nails sliding along your insides.
The way you would die was part of that knew knowledge though. You could now look at your own death, what would eventually happen to you. You would sit with that death and turn it over in your hands, examining it.
Anemia. That’s the precursor. And you have it.
When you’re sitting in the exam room, feet in stirrups and husband next to your head holding your hand during your first pregnancy exam you tell the doctor you’re anemic. The doctor shrugs, says with a patronizing smile: “Every pregnant woman is a little anemic.”
You tell her you once stopped bleeding for six months. That until you started taking iron your body held onto blood and wouldn’t let go. You tell her you’re like your grandmother. The doctor gives you a list of food high in iron.
Potatoes, dark chocolate, dark green vegetables, meats. Everything she had in her fridge. Everything as a kid you’d asked to eat and share with her.
Remember where it started?
Remember when you sat in the dark in the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles? You wore a scratchy dress—the one Mom bought and made you wear. You looked like a little black flower, the way the fluff sprouted off at the sides. Remember sitting next to Dad? You were at the edge of your seat, trying to listen to the beginning, soft words in Phantom of the Opera. Straining, leaning forward.
You screamed when the organs started and the chandelier burst into light and flame. You jumped all the way back in your seat, eyes dancing with light, heart pounding, nose filled with smoke. Dad laughed a little, handed you binoculars.
That was it. Gripping the armrests of the seat. Your palms were sweaty from that sudden bust of adrenaline and you were a little embarrassed for being startled so easily. You took the binoculars, scooted forward again, raised them to your eyes. You followed Dad’s finger when he told you where to look, what to see on the set.
See the Phantom?
That’s when it happened. When something wrapped around you, warmer than a blanket, prettier than ribbons. Invisible until you closed your eyes. You were taken. Swooning. Could just pull everything into the corners of your heart and mind and leave them there to grow roots and mature because that’s where it started for you.
Is there anything so great as a first love?
Remember? You wanted to see under his mask. You wanted to know why he was so afraid. To you, he was never the monster. He was misunderstood and beautiful. So sad that he felt like he needed to wear a mask, cover himself up. You wanted to remove it, hold his hand and tell him everything would be okay.
You didn’t love her, did you?
You did in the family-have-to way. Sure. But honest love? The kind that is coupled with respect and adoration? No. She was too harsh, too fake, too painted, too many plastic rings too much dyed hair and make-up and large hats. In one life she’d changed her name from Miriam, to Mickey, to Gretchen Lee to finally land on Holly. Always stay in character. Nothing real.
That’s not entirely fair because she didn’t love you either. You were too shy, too scared, too quiet, too many toys. Nothing loud.
And damn you both for wanting the other to be someone else. You wanted a regular grandma who baked cookies. She wanted a granddaughter to play dress up. She didn’t like children and you used to hide from her. Truth? You scared each other.
And yet, didn’t she attend your plays? Didn’t she send cards? Didn’t she try? What’s the line in The King and I? “I don’t think any man has ever been as good a King as he could have been. But this one tried.”
She tried. You think that means she was better than most, in that way.
It wasn’t until she was dying that she removed her bright blue contacts. Stared back at you with a pair of light brown eyes your father has, that you have. You inherited her eyes, had never even known.
There are three memories—images—of her you brush off to look at when you miss her. The first one is just a picture of her. She’s beautiful, arms outstretched on the stage of the MGM grand. She wears a floor length dress and the stage is full of lights. The second. The lady you didn’t understand who wore clothes like they were costumes. She called you Tiger and gave you a fake nail kit when you were into hiking and reading. You’d never forgive her for knowing you so little. Still haven’t, if you’re being completely honest.
Then the last one: when you wrapped your arms around her, felt how all of the bones in her body had gone brittle like a bird. So skinny. How her skin folded over itself in sucked-dry wrinkles, all blotchy with brown age spots she’d never had before or maybe you just didn’t remember.
When you stepped back, you kept hold of her hand. Couldn’t help but fixate on how her veins were both bright and dark blue. They wrapped around her, tightening their hold. Myleofibrosis robs the body of the ability to manufacture red blood cells. In they end, they were strangling her from the inside out. The memories blend together, forming one image that shifts in your head. It makes you stock up on dark chocolate and asparagus and nectarines. Take your iron. Like it or not, you’re becoming a little like her.
The irony. The horror of it all, that it was her body that gave out. Not her mind nor a single organ. No matter how young and immortal she tried to be, it didn’t work.
After she died in a hospital bed, how many nights did you dream of her on stage, skin colored grey, dressed in white and belting out the song Memory from Cats to an auditorium filled only with ghosts and smoke and silence. “I can smile at the old days, I was beautiful then,” is what she’d sing, heart breaking on stage for all to see.
Then, on that trip every family makes after a death—to pick and choose what memorabilia you want to take from your dead loved ones house—you were sifting through her large, plastic costume jewelry on her vanity table. You wondered how her gaudy bits of jewelry stayed on her long, thin fingers. If she wore it because people thought it was real, or just if she liked it (you never asked, did you?)
Staring back at you, under the small mountain of Made In China trinkets was a picture of her and Papa, probably in their sixties as Papa’s hair was still black, her hair a balloon of puffed up fake blonde. Both were smiling and wearing ugly Christmas sweaters. You picked it up, its weight surprising you.
A music box. You wound it up and what song did it sing, sitting in the palm of your hand?
Like you were supposed to figure it out. Like she was leading you to that spot to take your face in her hands so she could say yes, yes. “I was beautiful then.” She would crumple on the stage then, white and grey dress pooling around her. Skin sallow and sagging, she’d reach up to you.
You’d take your dead grandmother’s hand and kneel down with her, understanding. This is what happens to models and actresses when they get old, when the art of their skin withers, gives way to old age. It would be like watching all of your books just fly away, leaving you the most alone you’d ever been.
She just wanted to be beautiful again. Not even young, just beautiful. She countered age with facelifts and hair dye. She railed against winkles and puckered skin with money and make-up. Fought against the rules and binds of her silly human skin.
That’s when you folded over yourself; holding the music box to your chest, telling the ghost of your dead grandmother that you always thought she was beautiful. That even if she wouldn’t let you peel her mask off, you still should have tried, you still should have held her hand, told her it was going to be okay. That whatever was underneath her mask, you could handle, if she’d only wanted to show you.
When your blood attacks you, when you finally can’t eat enough vitamin C to help your body absorb the iron, when your heart moves the blood too quickly through your system and your veins constrict, strangling you, when you die, will she be the one to come for you?
Your mind will take you to the theater because theater and cancer march in your blood, side by side. It’s where your soul will end up.
You’ll watch your own set of beloved lights fade and curtains fall. You’ll wait on the stage, hang your feet over the edge like you used to do, tell every seat and every fading light that you loved it, have always loved it. Will always be on the tip of your tongue, your lips and teeth.
A sigh, wipe off the stage make-up that covers your face. It’s thick, sticky and annoying in the way it smears. Wasn’t worth the trouble. You know better now. To you, beauty is found within, but you don’t blame her anymore for trying.
That’s when she’ll come for you.
You’ll hear the click of her high-heeled boots and wonder what color they are—bright red or orange or yellow, probably. The swish of a long, elegant dress that dips down the front and back showing almost too much. Look up. She’ll be young again. Angular face framed by short dark hair. Her big brown eyes mirror your own.
She’s painted just so, everything tucked in and pushed up. Real diamonds adorn her fingers and gold shimmers in her dress. This. It’s who she always was beneath the surface, underneath her costume.
Miriam, Gretchen Lee, Mickey, Holly, no. Grammy. Grammy will be there for you, in the final moments because that stage is her home and she never left. That stage. It’s the one thing you both always loved. A place to cover, or hide, or become. A decorative alter to die on. Death and musicals. It’s all you two ever had in common. But it’s enough.
When your hands touch, when they fit together the way family should you’ll feel her bones and they won’t be brittle anymore and maybe she’ll notice you still don’t wear fake nails. You’ll grip hands, face the crowd and wait for the applause from the ghosts of everyone you met, performed for, every face in the audience you loved, loved you back.
There’s a reason why your favorite musical is The Greatest Showman and hers is Barnum. You both could feast on applause; stay sated for days in mind and love and body. In the plays, P.T. Barnum will face the audience, arms outstretched, face alight and smile straining. That’s a language you and Grammy both speak. One that thrashes against your skin, pounds to get out, begs to join in—stand up there with him.
“These are the colors of my life,” she’ll say, meaning her clothes, her smile her boots and jewelry and audience: everything she’d blended together, a picture she chose to wear for people to see and enjoy. Truthfully? She was braver than you have ever been. She would have run away to the circus but not for the same reasons as you. You would have gone for an escape, some kind of existential lesson in life and love. Her? She would have gone for the spotlight.
“This is me,” you’ll say back. You know exactly who you are and it doesn’t involve covering up. But you understand her and there on the stage you think she might understand you too.
Bow, because you’ve never been the kind of women to curtsey.
Mackenzie Kiera has an MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction Writing from the University of California, Riverside where she studied with Dr. Stephen Graham Jones and David Ulin. She is the author of over 30+ articles, essays and short stories that have appeared in Gamut Magazine, The Mighty, The Nervous Breakdown, The Manifest-Station, Ink Stains Anthology Vol. IV and Blumhouse. For the past three years she has been a contributing author to LA’s The Last Bookstore’s blog Dwarf+Giant, where she reviews books and interview authors. She is also the co-host of a new dark fiction podcast: Ladies of the Fright. Her work can be found online at mackenziekiera.contently.com.
Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.