Cigarettes and Green Felt
You were about six years old when you figured out adults were mostly liars. Your parents were on vacation and your paternal grandparents were staying with you in the house you grew up in. You never enjoyed it when your parents went away, and being left with the grandparents added insult to injury, but at least you had been spared the four-hour car trip to their home in Coronado. There had already been dozens of trips to their musty, oversized Craftsman, a home on what was now considered a double lot with green shingles and bars on the windows, despite the impeccable safety of the former island. And having them here was an imposition, but it did not weigh on you with the kind of despair that a road trip to Coronado could, where the summers of your childhood would be spent alone, dreaming of boys you hoped would notice you, achievements you hoped to make, and milestones you hoped to pass.
With the grandparents in town, the house smelled like smoke and the green felt side of the dining room table’s cover was kept on all day long to accommodate their countless games of bridge and gin. But at least it was still your table, and your TV, and your mother’s stack of pillows and dressing table. It was on occasions like these that you began to feel a closeness to your younger brother, because even if he was an intruder and a usurper, he was familiar, and he was young, and youth was something that seemed safe and viable. Because when you looked into the wrinkled faces of your grandparents, you did not see the love that you were told you saw, what you saw was something foreign and uncomfortable, and something not unlike death, though you never would have known to put that name to it. You felt confident that if there had been a fire, or an earthquake, that it would be you who would rescue your brother from his bed, rather than waiting for your grandmother to finish “putting on her face” to be ready to meet the public.
Your grandmother had once been a beautiful woman, and even as a grandmother she was far more glamorous than the average woman. In her twilight years she was still model-thin, smoked like a chimney, and would nurse a single screwdriver for the better part of a Saturday evening, twisting a paper napkin around the bottom and letting the ice melt into the drink so that the alcohol proof she drank was completely diluted by water and orange juice. She was a difficult woman, and later on in life she would ask you how your diet was coming every time she saw you, right at the train station, in front of the rest of the family, prompting you to wonder both what diet she was talking about and why she was such a bitch to a little kid. What you didn’t know then was that in her own way, she thought she was helping you: because where she came from, your worth was in your beauty, and years later you would realize that, first wave feminism aside, perhaps she was not so far off from the truth. That as much as you wanted to live in a world where your worth was also the content of your character, your grandmother’s world, harsh, mean, perfectionist, uncaring–might actually be the real one after all.
But this was years before that revelation, and for now the issues with food stemmed from your blanket refusal to eat anything she prepared. She was a horrible cook, but that did not stop her from preparing things like pea soup, Chicken à la King, chipped beef on toast, and other Depression-era monstrosities for you and your brother to choke down. On the morning in question, your grandmother had prepared some kind of shake or smoothie concoction that involved milk, sugar, and a raw egg. Perhaps this would have been considered delcious by some children, you didn’t know: but for you, there was no amount of sugar in the world that could make a raw egg mixed with milk taste good. She served it to you in a yellow plastic tumbler that your mother must have bought from one of the earliest Tupperware parties, but you had seen what went into the drink and weren’t having it.
“If you drink the whole thing to the bottom, there will be a surprise at the bottom,” your grandmother told you. Your understanding of physics and chemistry was admittedly somewhat limited, but you doubted the possibility of such a thing even at this young age. Still, there must have been a piece of you that wanted so desperately to believe, that same piece that believed in Santa Claus even after finding a gift in your parents’ closet that was wrapped up and given to your brother “from Santa” on Christmas morning. Perhaps there was some other explanation, something that defied your own powers of observation and reasoning. You were just a kid. What did you know? So you drank the drink, using the skill at opening your throat that would allow you to pound beer with the best of them in your twenties this time to stuff the salmonella-laced drink down and prepare for the surprise at the bottom.
There was nothing at the bottom. “Where is the surprise?” you asked. And your grandmother chuckled, without explanation. And you were angry, with her for lying, but more so with yourself for going along with the lie–knowing it was all a lie–and still wanting to believe so badly that you participated in the charade. Adults would lie about anything, you knew this, but your anger was so strong and white-hot that you vowed never to let on. You would never let this simple woman have her victory, and you remembered that the drink was so sweet, so sickly sweet, that it could not have been a healthy drink anyway, so nutrition could not have been the purpose of this exercise anyway. The point would never be clear, but you suspected that it, like everything, was tied up in the lies, and in the generations that had elapsed between the two of you.