The Granddaughter asked the Grandmother to make some ramen noodles, but the Grandmother didn’t want to because she was visualizing. Did the Granddaughter want to visualize, too? The Granddaughter figured doing what the Grandmother wanted would get her ramen noodles faster. She agreed to join in, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world. The Granddaughter liked making the Grandmother happy.
The Granddaughter removed a stack of books from the couch—among them, Divine Female Pleasure and UFOs and How to See Them—and sat next to the Grandmother, cross-legged. They visualized themselves into a painting that hung on the opposite wall, oil on canvas, artist unknown. Mountains, green grass, and a river. Lilac bushes edging a castle that looked made of sand and seemed very old.
“Imagine how it smells,” the Grandmother said, her back straight as a popsicle stick, her fragile frame draped in peach and mauve silk, “imagine it’s just you and me, and the lilacs and our breath. Hold the breath. Imagine no men are allowed.”
“What do you mean no men are allowed?” the Granddaughter asked sharply, “What does that even have to do with anything?”
The Grandmother didn’t have a response to that question and the Granddaughter looked over at the Grandmother’s dog, a very old Border Collie named Nietzsche (who resented his name, even though on some level he felt that it suited his nature).
“What about Nietzsche?” The Granddaughter asked.
“Not even Nietzsche,” The Grandmother replied.
The Granddaughter bit her lip and Nietzsche, for his part, yawned. His feelings might’ve been hurt by what the Grandmother had said if he hadn’t heard some version of it a thousand times before.
“I’m gonna make my own ramen,” the Granddaughter announced sourly. The Grandmother, without opening her eyes, gave what could’ve been interpreted as a nod of affirmation, and the Granddaughter felt something singe her insides. She jumped off the couch, took the Grandmother’s half-full bottle of crème de menthe off the coffee table, and poured what remained all over the clementine shag carpet before stalking off to the kitchen.
Nietzsche hobbled after Granddaughter to make sure nothing went wrong with the noodles or the stove.
Talk therapy made her feel like she was always the victim and everyone else was a theory. She was done excavating gray matter. It was time to live a little. (If ever the lid gets off her head).
She called him. He seemed surprised to hear her voice. She told him she was fine (because he’d asked), and he told her he was fine (even though she hadn’t asked) and then he wanted to know what kind of sheets she preferred: cotton or synthetic? Synthetic sheets are you out of your mind? she wanted to shout—synthetic sheets made her smell like dill potato chips when she sweat—but instead she said she didn’t care either way.
They set a date.
She bought a black bralette and high-waisted underwear, maxing out her credit card in the process. Her asymmetrical breasts made her self-conscious; they looked like water balloons dripping dry, but he was a grown up, he wouldn’t care. Otherwise, she was generally satisfied with what she saw in the mirror. She figured he’d be satisfied enough, too.
On the big day, she took a hot shower and exfoliated her face with kitchen salt. She sprayed lilacs on her wrists, she smeared crimson on her lips, she practiced sauntering around seductively, and sauntered her left shin right smack into a chair in the living room, whereupon her Chartreux, Ms. Gray, shot her a look that said: Are pets allowed to put their humans to sleep?
“Don’t judge me,” she spat at Ms. Gray, half-sauntering, half-limping into the January cold.
On the way to his apartment, she dug around in her purse, which was the shape and color of a flamingo. Instead of breath mints, she found a book on stoic philosophy that Ms. Gray had dragged in from the dumpster. That was the kind of thing Ms. Gray did—she didn’t drag in rats, or dropped twenty-dollar bills, but rather tattered books by dead Roman dudes reminding all the nobodies that the only lasting fame was oblivion. The perks of living with a middle-aged feline.
He answered the door disheveled, but not a bit nervous. She sauntered into his apartment, like she’d practiced (this time, avoiding minor injury). He hadn’t shaved, and as she fumbled with his belt, he told her she had sequin eyes and she didn’t know if he meant she was cheap like an 80s prom dress or sparkling down to her marrow.
Later that night, in the comfort of her own home, she slipped into a nightgown, a very flowy white thing, and tucked her iPhone in next to Ms. Gray, who was pretending to be asleep on a purple pillow. Please don’t monologue, please don’t monologue, please don’t monologue, Ms. Gray wished (as if her wishes had ever come true).
“I can’t really tell if he likes me…” Ms. Gray’s human began with a sigh.
Ms. Gray made a mental note to check the dumpster for cat-sized earplugs.
The Granddaughter knew that cloisters were for nuns, so when the Grandmother wrote her that she’d moved into one at the ripe young age of sixty-three, the Granddaughter got lost on Google for a few hours trying to figure out what that meant about the woman she’d always thought the Grandmother was versus the woman the Grandmother had suddenly chosen to be.
It’s a Papal cloister, the Grandmother sent via snail mail, and I’ve taken my vows, but I’m allowed the occasional visitor.
To the Granddaughter, it was all very strange. The Grandmother wasn’t even a strayed Catholic – her parents had been lukewarm Presbyterians—and furthermore, the Granddaughter and the Grandmother hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in over seven years. Why now, out of the fucking blue, was the Grandmother writing that she’d wait for the Granddaughter in the cloister’s parlor at two o’clock in the afternoon on the 20th of October?
The Monastery of Mary the Queen of Precious Blood and there are lilacs everywhere, the Grandmother’s cursive was impeccable, and if you don’t show up, I’ll simply return to prayer.
On the 20th of October, the Granddaughter took an Uber to the Monastery of Mary the Queen of the Precious Blood and shrugged at the curious look on the Uber driver’s face when he pulled into the very tiny parking lot to drop her off. The monastery itself was familiar to the Granddaughter; it looked like a castle, made of sand, and just as the Grandmother had written, there were lilacs everywhere, in full bloom despite the lateness of season. The Granddaughter walked up to a thick wooden door engraved with an image of Mary in anguish. A brass sign read: Parlor—Guests Allowed, and the Granddaughter went inside, where it smelled like mothballs and olive oil. In the center of the sparsely furnished parlor, the Grandmother seemed to hover, an opal, glowing all in white, and the sight of it all made the Granddaughter crinkle her nose. The two women regarded each other a few moments, and then fell into an embrace, the Granddaughter nestling her nose in the nape of the Grandmother’s neck, the way she had done when she was little, and even when she was seventeen.
“What are you doing here?” The Granddaughter whispered.
The Grandmother made no reply, but rather gently took the Granddaughter’s hand and sat her down on a chaise longue made of canary yellow satin. They began to talk—tentatively—about the weather, and then the food at the monastery, and then the Granddaughter’s job, and then how long it had taken the Grandmother to learn the rosary, and then how good the Grandmother had gotten at dipping liturgical candles. They talked like that for an hour or so and then the Grandmother brushed a strand of hair from the Granddaughter’s cheek and said that it was time for their visit to come to an end.
The Granddaughter’s eyes thawed to brown puddles. “I’m sorry I poured your crème de menthe all over the carpet when I was ten,” she wept, “I’m really sorry.”
The Grandmother half-smiled and told the Granddaughter that she was lucky if that was her life’s worst sin and somewhere a door creaked open and the Granddaughter heard the faint hum of an organ until the door creaked closed again.
“I miss Nietzsche,” the Granddaughter said.
The Grandmother wiped a tear from the Granddaughter’s cheek and said that she missed Nietzsche too.
For over an hour, the Granddaughter walked by the side of Co Hwy 16 until she came to a Metra station she’d vaguely remembered passing on her way to Mary the Queen of the Precious Blood. She waited thirty-seven minutes for a train and took it far enough towards the city to get off and walk the rest of the way home, where once inside, she removed a bunch of lilacs she’d plucked at the monastery from her flamingo purse and dropped them in front of a picture of Nietzsche in a copper frame. She kissed her fingers and placed them on the tip of his nose and then plopped down next to Ms. Gray on the couch, massaging her absent-mindedly behind the ears.
“I saw my Grandmother today,” the Granddaughter said after a while.
Ms. Gray perked up—eager to listen.
© Carmen Price
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy. Read Carmen’s interview]