Today I was very tired. It turns out time travel is exhausting and I feel like I’ve just returned from a different era. I still got to take a long walk in Bucharest, though. All I wanted was to walk through the old city center eating a warm sunflower seed covrig. I had to stop by three different stands to find sunflower seed ones as they seem to be by far the most popular flavor and run out fast, but once I found them I got three.
Today the aunts came by again and one of them helped me give my old lizard a salon treatment. I cut her hair, the aunt dyed it, then we washed, dried, and styled it together. I think the lizard looks extremely cute with her new haircut – it’s short and fresh with bad girl bangs. She absolutely hates it and resolved to wear a scarf over her head until it grows out. Though soon enough she forgot. Now she’s reading her prayer book out loud while sitting in her favorite chair.
Grandma inquired about my travel plans. Sometimes she’s really with it. Other times not so much. I told her I had to leave tomorrow, told her I’d go to NYC to sell my mother’s fur coats – more on that later. I told her I’d come back to see her in the summer, and that soon enough it’d be spring, and that spring is nice and she’ll like it.
“I think I’d rather be dead, though,” she said. “I’m sick of everything.”
“Hold out,” I told her. “Hold out for the big payout. You’re so close.” Apparently there’s a big cash prize the mayor’s office gives people on their hundredth birthday.
“I’m not sure I believe in it,” she said, but her eyes sparkled. “I’m not sure I want to live anymore, but the money would be nice.”
“You’re so close,” I told her. “Almost there.”
“I don’t want them to bring a television crew,” she said. “I won’t let them in.”
“They won’t give you the money if you don’t let them film you,” I said. I’m not even sure it’s true, not sure the mayor’s office does all that anymore. But we all need something to aspire to, some sizzle of anticipation. Spring, and flowers, and sitting outside in the sunshine. Summer and me coming back. And in the more distant future a major birthday with a big cash prize. And an unwelcome TV crew.
Of course I don’t really want to leave. And yet I do. Part of me wants to stay here forever to bring the old ladies sweetened milk and adjust grandma’s blanket over her hunched back. But part of me also wants to get back to life. I’ve been staying mostly inside for days. I’ve interacted mainly with women, as there is a constant stream of women coming in and out of this house. It’s like I’ve joined a convent or a coven. I kind of like it actually, but I like being in the world too.
“No! Not with the knife! Please don’t pick your teeth with a knife!” The irony that I’m shouting this as loud as I can, hoping the 95-year-old who kept me alive against all odds when I was a wild and unruly child will actually hear and mind me is not lost on me. Call it karma. Or things coming full circle. Whatever.
“These are not teeth,” my old lizard says with satisfaction. She only does what she wants and is the most stubborn creature I’ve ever met. She drinks Pepsi at night despite my protests, spends time bent over in a probably unhealthy position cleaning the bathroom floor – which is already clean, mind you – and hides stashes of chocolate as if they were gold bricks. I get it. She’ll never mind me. It’s ok. I figure the best I can do is probably make her laugh.
Some different aunts came by to see me today and we sat in the kitchen and laughed a lot. They told me it was the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat was starting, and for good luck one should have eight oranges in the house and roll them around on the floor like bowling balls. There were no oranges to be had at the little convenience store around the corner where I bought wine for the aunts. I googled the Year of the Rat, and it turns out it’s not a great year for Horses (I am a horse), unless horses learn to be patient, to watch their temper and their impulsiveness, to collaborate with others, and for best results do volunteer work or something similar to generate good luck. I’m not great at being patient, and my temper is an unruly beast with claws. Though I have been thinking lately of avoiding certain situations that irritate me, and stepping away from arguments. Also I really have been thinking of volunteering. So maybe I can turn this whole Year of the Rat thing around and have a good year after all. Here’s hoping.
Today I gave grandma a haircut. She has really thick hair, especially for a 98-year-old. It’s white and straight and strong. She was rather impatient with the whole process, but I do think she feels better now.
My old lizard likes to watch birds eat outside her window. She’s annoyed at the mourning doves. She thinks they eat too much and don’t let smaller birds eat. She also has issues with the way I set out the bird crumbs. I never seem to get it right. Also, I quite like the mourning doves and hope they get their fill.
Last night, however, in her room, while eating peeled apples, my lizard and I were able, despite her hearing loss, to have some quality communication. She told me I’m skinny and look good – which is great, as she normally has lots of criticism for everyone and everything and I am obviously vain enough to care.
Today I awoke to sunshine and to feeling entirely more empowered and more optimistic. First I woke up to grandma calling for me, but after tending to her I fell back asleep and dreamt of a rhinoceros and of my favorite Indian restaurant in Houston. I awoke to the doorbell. My aunt, the last furrier in the city, apologized for waking me, but it was way past ten. She has a key now and can actually let herself in through the main door of the old house – a door that has never been in use for as long as I remember. It was my idea to open it, my idea for her to come and go as she pleased, to have a little workshop in the foyer to do her alterations. Later, as I got ready to go out, three aunts were sitting in the tiny room, sunshine spilling abundantly through the slanted windows, as they discussed a rabbit coat. I suddenly felt happy and at peace with the fact that they were there, that they were doing stuff, that a new portal had been created, a new access way into the old house and to the old ladies. Their ability to communicate with the outside world and with each other diminished, I figured the aunts’ physical access to them was vital. I wondered what the old house felt about all this. Had I disrupted the flow of energy by opening a door closed for over 50 years? Had I reversed or refreshed it? As the aunt belabored the rabbit jacket I felt happy that I had opened the old house to such activities.
In my own workshop, while the aunts all huddled in the tiny foyer, I painted the Mare de Deu de Montserrat, a tiny statue I bought back from Barcelona ten years ago. In some ways she feels out of place here. In other ways she definitely belongs.
My old lizard likes to sit in her room and sew. When she’s not sewing, she’s sitting in her armchair crumbling bread into tiny crumbs so we can feed the pigeons outside. She doesn’t go outside anymore so she has one of us do it – and usually we do it wrong. She watches from the window and has lots of critical input.
The younger aunts, one of which is pretty old herself, sit in a small foyer where they moved their sewing machines. They mend very old fur coats for very old ladies. It’s not extremely lucrative as less and less old ladies exist who have fur coats, but the coats, meticulously made of very tiny pieces, are worn to rags and require serious mending.
I set up my own workshop in what used to be my uncle’s study. I figured the only one of us who doesn’t have a detailed-oriented, meditative task to keep her moderately content is grandma. Grandma lies in her bed and moans constantly about death. If she hears one of us stirring she calls us into her room to regale us with her complains and to make death-specific requests: “Pray for my death! I’m sick of this! Buy me a coffin.” I told her there’s a coffin in the attic. “That one’s too old,” she said, which actually is true.
After a train trip that seemed endless in a very crammed compartment, I finally made it to my very old ladies. As soon as I got here, my aunt pulled me aside to show me her workshop. But more on that later. Tonight I’m pretty tired, and being here always feels surreal on the first day.
Today we went to a restaurant to meet my dad’s best friends, their daughter, her husband and children. As I was getting dressed to go, a mourning dove sat on my windowsill. I like mourning doves best, so I was very happy to see it.
Tomorrow I’m going to see the old ladies. I am excited to see them, and my other aunts too, but I’m sad to leave here now that I’ve finally gotten acclimated.