On Top of It #4 by Lisa Martens
Dancing with the Woman Who Tried to Sell Me
A week ago, my oldest aunt remarried. This meant I would have to see her mother, my maternal grandmother. My mom and her sisters whispered to me. Could we be in the same car? How would we interact? We couldn’t be at the bridal shower together.
I hadn’t spoken to my grandmother since I graduated from college in 2010. I had quietly studied, quietly paid my bills, quietly worked and wrote papers—and then when the time came to receive my diploma, my grandmother decided to dig up a twenty-year-old skeleton: I had been in foster care as a baby, as my then-teenage mother hadn’t felt fit to raise me.
“You should let me go to her graduation ceremony instead of you,” my grandmother had told my mom. She felt that my mother was undeserving. She was claiming me—claiming something I had achieved without her.
This was the last in a long series of straws—there was her affair with painkillers, which became obvious when she had driven me out to Deer Park and became too high to drive back, and then there was her racism, which caused her to slap me if I spoke in Spanish, and then there was the casual way she would tell strangers that I didn’t know my Latino father, that he was a bastard who had abandoned me, and that he was lazy.
So after I graduated college, I stopped talking to my grandmother. I didn’t argue. I simply told her I didn’t want to speak to her anymore. There was no fighting. The fighting had happened when I was a child, and her psychosis was stale now. Her daughters had given up trying to intervene or get her off drugs. She would not stop, there was nothing to save. Her daughters’ tears had no impact except to push her further into denial, so they stopped crying. My mother complained.
“She wakes up in the middle of the night and sees things. She just walks around, then she doesn’t remember it.”
There’s a strange power my grandmother she has over her four daughters—Once I stopped talking to her, my mom started lying about being on the phone with me. “I’m talking to my friend Janet,” she said. I was upset the first time, then became hard.
The second time I graduated, I received my MFA. My parents flew in to see me graduate. My dad took me out for drinks the night before the ceremony. I had a cold and didn’t want to stay out late—We ended up going to Harlem and Brooklyn, with my dad complaining I couldn’t keep up with him. Then he told me about how my grandmother received custody of me after I came back from foster care. There was a stipulation that she could not transfer custody of me to anyone else except my own parents.
“This pissed her off because she had a family lined up to sell you to, and then she couldn’t.”
I didn’t drink after he told me that. I didn’t want to cry. Sell me? The more troubling part was that my body and mind didn’t reject the idea. It seemed plausible. The idea that she would want me for the sake of wanting me was what struck me as odd—the idea that she would want me to sell me to someone made sense. It moved through my heart like a lump of fat.
My grandmother and I have the same shoe size. We both have small feet and a petite frame. She had expensive shoes and bags, gifts from lovers, that she had given to me when she felt she was too old for them. I wore a pair of her shoes to my aunt’s wedding. They were red Cole Haans . . . more of a dark maroon than a true red, since I remembered from her first wedding that red was bad luck.
My baby cousins, three boys, were all over me during the ceremony. They all wanted to be the ring bearer. Then, after the “boring part” (the actual ceremony), they all wanted to throw rocks at the fake waterfall outside the hall, and of course they wanted me to watch.
“Chi-chi, I got it in there! Did you see? I’m going to do it again!”
“Cousin Lisa, look at this big rock I found!”
“Chi-chi, do you have a ball?”
As I watched the boys play in their little suits with pink and purple pocket squares, I wondered how high or drunk I would have to be to smack one of them for counting in Spanish, or to tell one of them that their father was a lazy bastard. I wondered what kind of place I would have to be in to drive them out to the edge of Long Island and then take too many pills to drive back—Instead leaving them scrambling for quarters for a pay phone. It was not a good place.
It was time for the reception. The three boys walked in together, all claiming to be ring bearers. The one who was actually the ring bearer graciously shared the credit. They put on cheap shades and top hats and danced.
My grandmother’s face had many more lines on it than I remembered. She was looking down, around, down, smiling, looking down, up, up, around—She didn’t seem like that cruel woman. I was afraid, actually, that she would fall down. I asked her if she wanted me to fix her a plate from the cocktail hour.
“Just a glass of red wine.”
I got her a glass, even though I didn’t want to. I was complicit in her substance abuse.
Then it happened—She saw the shoes I was wearing and commented on them. Somehow, through her haze, she recognized them. She took my hand to dance, and I did. I started dancing with the woman who tried to sell me, while wearing her shoes.
It lasted for only a moment, and then little hands reached up to grab my dress, to save me from thinking too much. The boys were bored, and they wanted to leave the reception hall. There was a rock that was left unthrown, maybe, or they wanted to sneak into the room where all the girls had put on their makeup. Our long eyelashes and pink cheeks were mysterious to them.
Lisa Martens (Episode 22) currently lives in Harlem. In her past 10 years in New York, she has lived in a garage on Long Island, a living room in Hell’s Kitchen, the architecture building of CCNY, and on the couch of a startup. She grew up in New York, Costa Rica and Texas, and she’s still not sure which of these is home. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing from CCNY. Her thesis, What Grows in Heavy Rain, is available on Amazon. Check out her website here. Follow her on Instagram here.